(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.)