Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Morgansfort: Killing Women is Shocking and Edgy, Especially When They’re Another Race!

(Update: This post is still getting a lot of traffic, so I’d like to ask everyone to not read this without also reading the follow up post here. Thanks!)

I’ve been looking over some free OSR modules over the last few months in vain anticipation that I’ll eventually find some folks to run a game with. Why am I looking at modules instead of writing my own? Well, as much as I’d love to, I don’t really have the free time to create an adventure or series of adventures wholesale, shaping them into an epic and satisfying yarn, especially with the likelihood that I won’t be able to use it anytime soon.

Awhile back I’d heard from somewhere (probably Tenkar’s Tavern) that BFR offered free downloads of modules and such. Even if I don’t ever get to run them, a good module is like a good fantasy story, so I enjoy reading them. I haven’t looked at Fortress, Tomb and Tower yet, but, between studying MYFAROG, B/X and other stuff, I’ve been going over Morgansfort, which is set up as a 3 dungeon mini-campaign with a fully detailed and statted out eponymous adventuring hub.

I’ll knock the good out of the way, because that’s not why I’m writing this post. Morgansfort itself is a nicely fleshed out baronial keep with an accoutrement of guards and bureaucrats with their own funny little quirks and personalities. The first dungeon, The Old Island Fortress, is a nice dynamically inhabited ruin just southeast of the eponymous Morgansfort. The second “nameless” dungeon is a huge (almost 90 room) insect and slime filled… something. Gygax monster menagerie? It seems thrown together rather haphazardly, and if there were any rhyme or reason to its initial intent, it’s long since faded with the passage of time. Evil elven necromancers who got displaced by giant insects, I guess, though the players will likely see even less of the ancient elven backstory here than the DM. But, they’ve got fixed wandering & static monsters, all nice and statblocked for your with checkboxes for tracking HP.

The third dungeon, the Cave of the Unknown, is the only of the three that has a real adventure/quest behind it other than “plunge the depths, plunder the wealth!” And it is with this quest that I have a lot of problems. Creepy sexism and slaughter of women for shock value and edginess ahoy!

Mr. Questgiver tells you his daughter has been kidnapped by orcs, and he’ll do anything if you can rescue her! Here’s the twist: she wasn’t just kidnapped by orcs. An orc tribe accidentally stumbled upon the lair of an evil wizard, who’d unwittingly turned himself into a zombie (he was aiming for lich, but didn’t have a very good understanding of the ancient artifacts he was dabbling with). Said evil wizard has demanded the orcs bring him a wife, or he’ll use his army of undead to drive them out. Okay, that’s not so bad! Sure, it’s a fairly cliched save the damsel setup, but, for better or worse, saving kidnapped women is a fantasy staple. Well, it goes downhill from there.

As an aside, let me say that I’ve grown to have a soft spot for orcs and tend to think of the rather genial Orsimer of Elder Scrolls than the ugly deformed grotesqueries from Tolkien. The more you humanize monsters, the harder they are to kill without moral quandary. I think this is one reason why Tolkien never mentioned any orc women. However this is tabletop heroic fantasy, and I feel that the following tableau exists simply to be edgy and make the players say “dude!” Okay, that’s been said, let’s continue.

The orc tribe is led by an orc queen who married an ogre. When the adventurers find the orc den, most of what they find there are orc women and pregnant orc women. The male orcs immediately draw weapons, prepared to engage. The way the scenario is setup and described encourages wholesale slaughter of the orcs and the pregnant orc women (who the text suggests will backstab you if you allow them to surrender). It doesn’t really present (nor does the text seem to encourage) any options or solutions to proceed forward without carving your way through swaths of pregnant women, an orc queen and her boss-tough ogre husband. Any bad karma or negative consequences for this wholesale slaughter is completely at DM discretion and mentioned nowhere in the text. Or maybe I’m misassuming that Morgansfort is directed at parties playing good or “lawful” characters (you might justify it using the 3 axis alignment, but if we were using a 9 axis alignment, as a DM, I’d never let it fly that any good aligned character get away with this without huge alignment penalties).

I’d have liked to have seen some opportunities presented, or some inkling in the source material that there were options other than killing everyone, to rescue the damsel and defeat the evil wizard. Killing the evil wizard would certainly be to the orcs’ benefit, though I doubt most players would have the opportunity to hear Badushna’s story of how the wizard threatened her and her people with evil magic and forced them to meet his wild demands. Killed by a necromancer and his zombies if they don’t kidnap maidens, killed by swashbuckling adventurers if they do!

But things don’t stop with the arrow in Queen Badushna’s chest, or the torn open bellies of her pregnant sisters. We have to get to Starisel, who has kidnapped Saril (a serving girl) and Gwelayn (the quest-giver’s daughter). That Saril is “dark skinned” and Gwelayn is “attractive medium-skinned” is a confusing detail, made more troubling by the fact that poor dark skinned Saril is thrown in cell to rot (it’s specifically said that she needs to be rescued by players soon or she’ll die of thirst) while Gwelayn is taken for his necro-bride. Gwelayn herself is unrescuable as the adventure is written. She has been preserved with arsenic and turned into a zombie by Starisel. Far as I can tell, you’re expected to kill her along with Starisel and drag whatever’s left of her back to her father for his paltry 800 gold. A far more interesting, challenging and rewarding direction would be trying to actually save Gwelayn. This is a fantasy RPG, after all. Death is only a tax on the pocket-book. I’d like to think that someone, somewhere would have the whatwithal to figure out how to perform a combined remove curse, cure poison, resurrection on poor Gwelayn. Maybe even cure Starisel and cleanse him of his madness? Well, certainly not for tiny reward sum that’s at stake. There’s probably 20 Gwelayns worth of treasure just lying around the place!

Maybe I’m wrong about Morgansfort being targeted at heroic or even lawful characters? The Cave of the Unknown provides a smorgasbord of goodies for an evil party. The altar of zombie creation and control can be mastered by anyone with a read-language skill or spell. Just take over where Starisel left off, only not being so stupid as to turn yourself into a zombie.

Whatever the case may be, I’m now questioning using Morgansfort, and if I do, it will not be used ‘as-is’. Morgansfort is NOT beyond rehabilitation. However, unless you’re playing with kill’em all style players for whom monsters and npcs are merely their stat-blocks, you might feel the need to make some substantive changes and additions. For now, I’m going to go back and take another look at some of the free Blueholme modules, which struck me as a lot less questionable.

(also, I know there’s also a huge race issue here that I didn’t really go into very much. But we can kill orcs wantonly, even women, the unarmed and pregnant, because they are so much the ‘other’ that their lack of a right to live or justice is beyond questioning. I wonder what it would be like if Gwelayn and Saril had been kidnapped not by orc bandits, but by human bandits? Would the human bandits have with them their wives and children? Would players be expected to kill them just as readily? And what about poor, black Saril, thrown in a cage? At least she didn’t get turned into a zombie, but the text specifically says that the quest giver doesn’t care one way or the other if she’s alive or not. Blarg! It’s all too much to go into! If anyone wants to take all of this the next step further, be my guest.)

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19 responses to “Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Morgansfort: Killing Women is Shocking and Edgy, Especially When They’re Another Race!

  1. I haven’t read Morgansfort, but I clearly remember one of my first D&D experiences in the B2 Caves of Chaos – all of us were new to RPGs and here we were faced with all these tribes of humanoids and their lairs filled with “females and young”. As players we were quite taken aback and not a little debate ensued, but more than one of our (teenage) group decided that chaotic or neutral alignment meant they should do away with them to make the land safe for future generations.

    I hope you enjoy the Maze of Nuromen. It is somewhat dark and grim, but maybe you or your players (if you get the chance to run it) will find a way to give the tale a happier ending …

    • Thanks! I am looking forward to running Maze of Nuromen, very much enjoying the gothic horror feel of it.

      But yeah, lately I keep noticing more and more, and killing/raping women is an easy way for writers to add shock value. With so much of the gaming community supposedly speaking out against sexism in gaming, it’s just kind of shocking to still see it. And again, thirty years of fantasy writing, gaming and comics humanizing intelligent demi-human has made it a lot harder to overlook when it happens to non-humans.

  2. Remember that BFRPG is an old-school game, and as such monsters have reaction rolls. Those orcs, therefore, are as likely as not to be friendly, if you play by the rules. Especially given that BFRPG doesn’t use an alignment system at all, there’s no expectation that the PCs or the Orcs are more likely to be good guys or bad guys.

    All the same, if a bunch of heavily armed strangers turn up in your home and near your children, wouldn’t you anticipate violence? My only time through Morgansfort, in fact, they had a neutral reaction and the PCs rallied the orcs to take on the wizard.

    Definitely with you on the kidnapped NPCs though. Nothing a diplomatic GM can’t work with, but it shouldn’t need a diplomatic GM.

    • I think that perhaps because it IS an old school module that I’d assume that the intention is for a wholesale orcslaughter. If I recall, in Borderlands, the ‘women & children’ will pretty much run off east at the first chance. However, in MF, it’s there in the text that the players need to kill all the pregnant orc women; they’ll backstab the players if they’re left alive. I think the text, by specifically punishing the players for being merciful, crosses the moral event horizon here. I’m not saying that the GM can’t run it the way they like, but rather it should be left more open ended to begin with.

      • I definitely can get behind what you’re saying. Since this review came to my attention, I’ve talked to Chris Gonnerman a little bit about it, I think he’s willing to play ball on this.

  3. It has been a while since I looked over Morgansfort, but think maybe you are overreacting just a bit, As with most BFRPG products, Morgansfort is very basic and bare bones, adapting it to suit your own tastes and campaign is very easy. If you don’t want the orc women and children killed, remove them, have them flee before the party, surrender, bargain with the PCs or whatever. Just because something is presented a certain way doesn’t mean there are no other options, your the DM take what you like from the module and change/adapt what you don’t. It could be that in the authors campaign orcs are evil, every orc, man, woman and child it doesn’t matter they are evil to the core, they are just born that way. It doesn’t have to be that way in your campaign.

    As to the merchant not caring about the servant girl, why should he? His concern is focused on his daughter, its not like he tells the PCs not to aid her, just that there is nothing in it for them if they do.

    • I will cop to being a bit hyperbolic about it. I was in a bit of a fell mood when wrote it (can’t even remember why), and I’m somewhat surprised that all of this is coming back all these months later. As for all of the other BFRPG modules I’ve read, I really like most of them. I can’t recommend Adventure Anthology One enough.

    • Also, on reflection, I think my problem with the servant girl is that her fate is the only one that’s not assumed by the text, allowing for the players to affect the outcome, but with no consequence for the players. It’s like if at the last juncture of a choose your own adventure book, both choices take you to the same ending.

  4. Don’t be surprised at this all coming back now… I make a point of Googling for mentions of the game from time to time, and I hit this on the second or third page of results. I asked on my forum for opinions and advice before coming here and answering; as you might expect, I had a rather visceral reaction to your comments, and I knew if I posted right away, I’d make a butthead of myself.

    That said, I have to say that your assessment of me is inaccurate, but that the off-kilter things you noted in the adventure are spot on. A case of Fundamental Attribution Error, something I’m not always immune to myself.

    There are two main things you seem to be calling out as signs of my racist and sexist mentality. The first is the pregnant orc women, and my indication that they will backstab anyone fool enough to accept their surrender. This was not meant to indicate that they had to be exterminated by the players, though I can see how it came out that way. In my own campaign, my players accepted their surrender, but kept their eyes on them until they were all out of the lair (in other words, they drove them out). This was what I was thinking of when I wrote the part of the text you pointed out.

    The second issue is my note that Saril had darker skin than her mistress Gwelayn. It was a mistake to mention that. In my campaign (for which I wrote that adventure), the people across the mountains from the kingdoms of Enterone and Roslane often sell their sons and daughters into indentured servitude. My players are familiar with the situation and were not surprised that Saril was darker-skinned than the local Enteroneans (who have light olive skin) or the Roslanian merchant and his daughter (who are pale skinned). But, including the comment in the module, wherein I had not discussed the ethnicity of any other characters, was an outright mistake. I just didn’t see that it was an issue when I did it.

    I was, in all actuality, just writing down the story the way it played out in my game. Cave of the Unknown was finished after being playtested, like most of my adventures. So I am planning a new release, correcting these issues.

    I will say that I wish you had let me know about these issues by some channel that didn’t require a Google search to find it. If you had, I would have been able to release a fix much earlier.

    • Hi! Thanks a lot for coming by! I feel that I may have unfairly taken things out on Morgansfort, simply because it was the module I was going through while I was getting hammered by a lot stuff in this vein at the time. Despite the problems I had with the module, MF, BFRPG and the other BFRPG modules I have make great reading and campaign fodder. I guess it’s BECAUSE everything had been such high quality, well written and well put together that coming upon those things sort of made me do a double take. I’ve been struggling with coming back into the hobby and I love the Old School stuff mechanically but there is a lot of really gross offensive stuff in it too. So I had an “Awww, man!” moment, and took out my frustration on what I was reading at the time. It honestly hadn’t crossed my mind to mention it to you myself (being super new to the online community, I sometimes forget the close relationship between the indie publishers and the rest of the blogging community). At no point did I mean for any of what I posted to be a personal attack against you. Again, thanks a lot for taking the time comment.

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  6. What exactly is sexist about killing the orc queen? She is the leader of the tribe, she commands the warriors. As commander-in-chief, should she be spared punishment simply because she is female? If it were an orc king getting killed, I don’t think anyone would care, they would that he got what he deserved, or that it had to be done. Dishing out the same punishment to her doesn’t sound like sexism at all, it sounds like equality, it sounds like she is being dealt with exactly as a man would likely be dealt with be in her position. Also, how is killing the other orc women sexist either? The ones that are armed meet the same fate as the orc men do, offering armed resistance. While killing the pregnant orcs can be considered distasteful due to the fact that they are unarmed, offer surrender, and beg for mercy as well as the additional life of the young being snuffed out, it isn’t sexist, it’s just dark. Sexism is treating one gender differently than the other, and decrying the slaughter of females (Including those that are offering armed resistance and one in a leadership position encouraging raids on other humanoids) while ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of violence occurs against males sounds pretty sexist to me. This is frustrating to me, because this is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing, people demand that women be allowed to “play ball” so to speak, but cry foul as soon as one of them gets tackled.

    The racism complaint sounds flimsy as well, as giving a physical description indicating a difference in appearance, and promoting racial superiority are two very different things. The only meaning of significance of their skin color was to point out that they are from a different land than most of the other humans in the area.

    I implore you to try to look at it again from a different angle, and try to understand where I am coming from. As for my game, it will played “as is” and happily so.

    Happy gaming.

    • I don’t disapprove of the Orc Queen or the armed females at all. What I disapproved of was how the module was originally written so as to make violence seem like the first course of action and putting players in a position where killing unarmed pregnant women would be tactically advantageous.

      As for the racism, I think the bigger issue for me was with the idea that it was okay to kill orc women simply because they’re orcs. The situation with the girl and her black slave just stuck out as odd and unsightly because there wasn’t any sort of previous cultural context given in the supplement itself to explain this.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  7. I was browsing through your OSR category and misinterpreted the subject line to mean that “women” were considered a different race (i.e. female is a race akin to dwarf, elf, orc, etc.).

    I’m familiar with the “orc women” dilemma, but I’ve never known a module that actually included orc women. I’ll have to take a look. Hm.

    –Dither

    • Despite my gripes about it, it’s really an excellent module with a lot to borrow from. Part of it may stem from being trio of dungeons where the first two are relatively themeless kill-everything dungeons followed by a third with a highly nuanced scenario that definitely crosses some lines and veils, especially if approached like the other two dungeons in the package. Cue the Sesame Street ‘which of these is not like the others’ music.

    • Despite my gripes about it, it’s really an excellent module with a lot to borrow from. Part of it may stem from being trio of dungeons where the first two are relatively themeless kill-everything dungeons followed by a third with a highly nuanced scenario that definitely crosses some lines and veils, especially if approached like the other two dungeons in the package. Cue the Sesame Street ‘which of these is not like the others’ music.

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  9. Isn’t the pregnant enemy the classic conundrum for Lawful good to deal with. A proper module is open ended when it comes to player actions, they shouldn’t tell you every possible option. So what do you do? I haven’t read the adventure but as a role playing problem properly handled it would be far more interesting than a blood bath, especially if you had a Paladin who might risk the wraith of their god for the wrong choice.

    • Y’know, at the time my big issue was that the module, as written, more or less said players had to kill them or they would backstab and try to kill the players first chance they got.

      Chris apparently made a number of tweaks to the module based on this, and for whatever reason actually credited me with the change, but all and all, I’m still rather embarrassed for having SJWed against BFRPG over this; it was a different and weird time in my life.

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