Game: Skraag – City of Orcs
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 2nd, February 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 4.00
“Home to over twenty-five thousand rampaging orcs, Skraag is a city of pure brutality, a place of nightmare that even the bravest adventurer will fear to tread. Built from the ruins of an ancient dwarven stronghold the orcs themselves destroyed, the hordes of Skraag range for miles in every direction, brining slaughter and misery to any community unfortunate enough to be within range of their predations.”
What’s this? No, the authors of the Baedekers Guide’s haven’t gone insane and written a cruel guide to Boston. It is, as you’ve guessed, the introduction to Mongoose Publishing’s first book in their new Cities of Fantasy series. I actually liked the book, more than I thought I would but I’m going to disagree with the introduction. It’s not the brutality of Skraag that makes it adventure worthy, it’s the politics of power. I’m sure the “city” would have a huge effect on the countryside community for many miles around but the book’s all about what goes on inside Skraag.
The first half of the book struggles to portray the violence and the crude nature of the orcs. “By the way, I thought your take-over of the southern land holdings was masterfully performed,” says one of the orcs in an early atmosphere clip. “That’s disgusting!” says another as he notices a dog like demon with human style arms. That’s not really my idea of how orcs talk. To become a Disciple of the Asphibyiex you need to make a Charisma 15 requirement, that’s a pretty suave orc. Mind you, we are talking about the leaders of an obscure but very real necromantic cult that secretly exist in Skraag. You would have to be a socially sly fellow to pull that off.
The Asphibyiex is an outcast god with a water element, a domain over undead and that is connected to the large and very important underground lake in the Skraag mountain. The Maimed Lord, the orc god Alodai, is the chief deity for those in the city and whose priests cover their faces with masks at all times. Kharkus is the trapped demon that yearns to try once more to take Alodai’s divinity for himself. The demon Kharkus’ stats are even given in the book, taking advantage of the sixty-four page tally over the thirty-two paged Slayer’s Guides. Challenge Rating 23, by the way. The Silver Tusks are a prestige class for scary orc fighters and the Warriors of the Nine are an even more prestigious class for dwarven guerrillas sworn to fight the orcs. It’s all very high-powered stuff. That’s not bad thing. Everything I’ve mentioned above is all cleverly tied together. For example, the dwarf heroes, the Warriors of the Nine attempt to poison the vitally important lake Craddush as a sure way to drive out the orcs and so, needless to say, the orcs invest a great deal of effort in patrolling and protecting the lake. The disciples of the Asphibyiex, orcs themselves, have infiltrated the lake guard to be sure that their actions can be best harnessed for their cult. That’s a cult that must compete with Kharkus’s for influences, resources and a way to see their patron unseat The Maimed Lord.
The second half of the book brings home more typical orcish behaviour. After you look over the religious areas of the city and bounded areas you discover that almost everywhere else has been given over to pit fighting areas, rowdy markets, drinking sites or are part of Skraag’s defences. The goblins, there are some, had to dig their warrens in the area abandoned by the orcs as a refuge dump. The second half of the book also provides a whole lot more information on the important conglomerate of orcish hordes that are so vital to Skraag. You’re offered a summary of warlords, which shaman are allied to them and how many troops they command. Their stats come later. You are also given some nice new orc war machines like the pitch thrower and stats for orcish war dogs.
Hundreds of orcs and nasty war machines are just the thing I thought about terrorising players with after reading Mongoose’s The Quintessential Fighter. The outcast god with a domain over undead, the Asphibyiex, lends itself straight to Encyclopaedia Arcane: Necromancy, Kharkus’s followers find themselves using special abilities straight out of Encyclopaedia Arcane: Demonology and all the pit fighting snuggles wonderfully into Gladiator – Sands of Death. That’s all a bit handy, unless, that is, you don’t have the books. I don’t think Skraag is highly dependant on it’s sister books, you can play with all most all of it without having any back up but there is a dependency issue. After all, you don’t really need a set of extra rules to imagine how orcish pit fights might progress. There are alternative suggestions for demonic powers if you don’t have Demonology but want to play with Kharkus. If you had to pick just one other backup book then I’d suggest Mongoose’s Necromancy book because although there are basic necromantic spells in the core rules the additional text provides the spells and background to play the Asphibyiex’s cult with the subtlety required.
There’s a decent collection of new rules in Skraag too. There are new spells with an orc mindset to them. “Extend Rage” allows you to mess around with Barbarian normal rage. Then there are the required magics to create the powerful lake zombie and the matching stats for the zombies. I liked the new feats too since they avoided the “even greater cleave!” and “greater than the previous cleave feat!” trap for orcish feats. You’re looking at feats that allow orcs to use their strength to bully others in bluff checks rather than any social wiles or the ability to scrounge out a living and life from almost nothing. I think all orcs should have the latter.
I think the idea of a “location” book works better than a pre-written adventure. Skraag’s designed so you can drop it into any campaign you want to run. That said; I’m a known sceptic when it comes to pre-written adventures (but have been proved wrong) and there’s simply so much packed into the City of Orcs that it’s hard to go wrong. The GM knows all the different groups in Skraag, how they react to one another, what their ambitions are and how they’re going to go about achieving them. What more do you want do you need for an adventure? As long as your players are sufficiently experienced to do without the “carrot and stick” approach of a linear dungeon crawl then you’ve got the important ingredients for a richly detailed (non linear) game. I was slightly disappointed at the sample adventure ideas at the back of the book. The obvious idea to play (or help) the dwarf Warriors of the Nine in their underground war against the orcs is there, however most of the other ideas deal with skirting around Skraag and finding sensible ways to take the orcs on. I don’t really think that makes best use of the wealth of information in the book. Skraag’s an ideal setting to try your luck at playing a party of half-orcs (or even orcs) as characters in an orc based setting – rather than being the half-orc in the human based setting. It’s a darn sight more tricky getting anything other than extremely high powered “hero” characters into the guts of Skraag which is why I was hoped the author would have some ideas.
The book’s well written, thought out and presented. That jumps up the rating by a notch. An example of this, I think, is the first couple of pages. You read through the history of Skraag as a naturally flowing story but that story just happens to be divided up into various meaningful sections. You can jump straight to the fury of the Maimed Lord or too notable authority figures.