OSR: Invading Orcs, Part 1

I don't have Orcs in my setting... yet.

They exist, but they haven't been defined. They live somewhere beyond the edge of the map. Spend a few months in a major city and you may meet someone who has met someone who seen them. At the moment they are remote and inconsequential.That may change.

I'm not going to use them as bandits or raiders; I've got people for that. A medieval setting has no shortage of small hostile bands. I'm going to use the orcs as invaders.

Stanton Feng
Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. 
The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; 
A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: 
And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. 
And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. 
-Deuteronomy 28:48-52

In the same year, for our sins, there came unknown tribes. No one knew who they were or what was their origin, faith, or tongue, and some people called them Tartars, while others called them Taurmens, and sill some others called them Pechenegs. Some say that these are the people of who Methodius of Patar spoke and that they came came from the Yetrian Desert, which is between the North and East. [...] Only God knows who these people are or from whence they came. The wise men, who understand the Books, know who they are, but we do not.
In this way did God bring confusion upon us and an endless number of people perished. This evil event came to pass on the day of Jeremiah the Prophet, the 31st day of May. As for the Tartars, they turned back from the Dnieper, and we know neither from whence they came nor whither they have gone now. Only God knows that, for he brought them upon us for our sins. 
-The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, covering the arrival of the Mongols in Russia

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests. 
-Iain M. Banks
Justin Sweet
The fear of invasion and subjugation by an unknown power is very, very old. Everything seems to be going well. Your enemies are known; their methods and tactics are predictable and match yours. You are focused on a hundred different local issues. And then, just as you are preparing for the summer campaign, your rivals turn up at your doorstep and beg for help. Your rivals say their cities were attacked by an unknown enemy, using tactics and tools unknown in this region. The enemy achieved total, uncontested victory.

So you put aside centuries of tradition and ride out with your rivals. A grand alliance. If this were a different sort of story - a heroic allegory, a national myth - you'd succeed, but you don't. Your armies are engulfed and destroyed. 

Maybe the enemy disappears. You have no idea who they were or why they came or when they'll be back. It's what the Novgorodians thought of the Mongols. It's presumably what people in Persia and India thought of Alexander the Great. Or maybe they stick around and rule for a few years or a few centuries. Maybe they never leave.

These days, we need to rely on aliens or demons or whatever to get the same effect. Our world is known and mapped. Hordes cannot ride over the horizon. Everyone's potential enemies are mapped and categorized. But in a medieval setting, where the world is small and badly mapped, the fear of a hostile nation arriving and destroying the local order is always present. It has happened before. It may happen again.
KILART (choe, heonhwa)

The Invaders

They slam into your existing setting like a sledgehammer.

1d10 Above all other tools, they prize... They are heralded by...
1 Horses. Smoke on the horizon.
2 Bows. Thick, unnatural fog.
3 Whips. The sound of distant thunder.
4 Spears. Refugees.
5 Trained war-beasts. Wildfires.
6 Swords. Rain and hail.
7 Siege engines. A strange smell in the air.
8 Magic. A maimed captive tied to a horse.
9 Handguns. Nothing - they attack by day.
10 Cannons. Nothing - they attack by night.

1d10 They wear... They are adorned with...
1 Next to nothing. Piercings and scars.
2 Dyed cloth. Gold and silver trinkets.
3 Stinking furs and rotting leather. Bone idols.
4 Strange cloth, woven by an unknown art. Brightly coloured paint.
5 Plates of bone or chitin. Long, braided hair.
6 Thick padded cloth, sewn into patterns. Wild, unkempt hair.
7 Wooden armour, as strong as steel. Grisly trophies.
8 Bands of leather and iron. Feathered cloaks and helmets.
9 Metal armour, thick and crude. A simple design or mark, repeated.
10 Metal armour, lighter and stronger than ours. Glass beads and gems.

1d10 Rumours say they are... They seek...
1 The harbingers of the apocalypse. All the gold and silver we have.
2 Numbered beyond counting. All the gold and silver we have and all that we can mine.
3 Summoned from the earth, not born. All our food and livestock.
4 Creatures without fear, hunger, or mercy. A rare but worthless tree, herb, or plant.
5 A nation briefly mentioned in our holy texts. Our children and warriors, to serve in their armies.
6 The invited guests of our ancient enemies. To replace our rulers in all respects.
7 A scourge sent by heaven to punish us. To tear down our churches and destroy our religion.
8 Seeking vengence for an ancient wrong. A rare but worthless mineral or gem we sometimes find.
9 Messengers from a new god. To exteriminate us.
10 Demons clothed in flesh, escaped from Hell. The destruction of our cities and towns, down to the last stone.

Weta Workshop
Much like the Plague, an Invasion has several stages.

1. About to Happen
2. In Progress
3. Just Past

1. About to Happen

The PCs get 1d6 days of warning, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. On a 1, the Invasion arrives at nightfall the same day.

See the "Heralded by..." table above. One thing precedes the invasion. It is unnatural, unseasonable, and worrying. The PCs won't know what is happening, but they will know something is happening.

2. In Progress

The Invasion arrives.

Exactly how it arrives will depends on the nature of the Invaders. They might use scouts. They might open with a bombardment, a carpet of cavalry, a spell, a mass raising of the dead, a furious charge, or an endless column of foot troops. Their way of making war is the rock to your scissors. They outnumber you.

If the PCs are in a city, the city is besieged. If the PCs are in a village, the village is burned. If the PCs are in the wilderness, outrider groups, scouts, or roving bands of soldiers search for wealth and resistance.

The PCs have never seen anything like the Invaders. They have no frame of reference. They do not share a language, a religion, or a worldview. If the Invaders have magic, it is not like the local magic. If they have beasts, they are not like the local beasts. Ideally, they aren't even creatures the players know, to reinforce the unknown and inexplicable nature of the enemy.

Side Note: A slow marching pace is 3 miles per hour. On level ground, on a clear day, the horizon is about 3 miles away. Isn't that convenient? Of course, most armies move considerably quicker, but an entire block of troops could be invisible one hour and on top of you the next.

Chances are good the PCs won't have sufficient resources to fight the Invasion directly. When armies start tearing the setting apart, the PCs have a very limited number of options if they want to survive (and many options if they want to die).

I. Survive the Initial Assault
Someone sets the PCs' house on fire. Chaos, confusion. Warriors in the streets, cutting down civilians indiscriminately. The gates are breached. The siege collapses. Screaming and flames.

Run standard combat encounters with groups of two or three enemies, or run a decision tree like Deep Carbon Observatory's. The PCs should find transportation and escape or find a place to hide until the chaos subsides and the killings end. Swimming across a river, grabbing fast horses, dubious teleport scrolls will get them away from the initial invasion, but they are not out of danger. Hiding might work, depending on what the Invaders are after, but running gives you more options.

II. Evade Capture
Even if the Invaders are after something else, they will seek to contain and control the local population. An ordered, numbered, contained, and disarmed population is a pacified population. Rebels will be executed in public as a warning to others.

This is a slow, cautious phase for the PCs. Resource management becomes important. Did the PCs grab any supplies when they escaped? Starvation and disease are allies of the Invaders. The landscape changes. Safe roads become deathtraps. Inns and strongholds become barracks. Landmarks to gallows. Roving patrols, wandering idle soldiers, bizzare construction projects, fields of labourers, caravans of loot moving back to some unknowable destination.

III. Evaluate the Invaders
The Invaders gradually move being an incomprehensible force to a comprehensible force to an accepted part of life. The PCs can study them, learn their goals, learn their culture. Who holds power, and how is it exercised? What do the want, in detail? They aren't Lovecraftian monsters or truly unknowable forces.

Knowing what they want and sympathizing with it are two very different things. You might understand why the Invaders want skulls - the cultural goals, the biological needs, the complex alliances - but this may not make you any more likely to give up your skull.

3. Just Past

Once the PCs understand the Invaders they can begin to profit by them. Meet the new boss, not so different from the old boss. Local interpreters, guides, and hunters will always be valuable to the Invaders. The bleakest option are hunting down people who escaped the initial massacre, assisting in the next invasion, or directly enforcing the new rules. Depending on what the Invaders want, the PCs could also mine, trade, scout, hunt monsters, offer advice, and meddle with the usual PC nonsense.

In a heroic game, fighting the Invaders directly is viable, but again, this isn't that sort of game. You can definitely make them leave and make them lose, but you can't do it by killing them one at a time in D&D-scale combat. You need a very good, very complex plan.
Andrius Matijosius

The Invaders Have A Plan

And it's a very simple plan. It's been used for thousands of years. If you want to control a group of people and make them serve your interests rather than their own:
1. Disrupt the existing order, usually by killing a lot of people.
2. Insert yourself into existing structure and impose new structures.
3. Do not allow the old order to reform.

This applies to both social and economic structures. The Mongols ride into your lands and burn your cities. They send your best artisans, artists, musicians, and poets back to their capital and mix them in with captives from other nations. (1) Law, food, daily life, rituals, and status all come from the Mongols. (2). Captives are kept busy. New social groups and microcultures form, but in a Mongol-dominated environment. (3).
Colonialists... interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits. 
-Richard G
Before the Invaders, you had a method for punishing criminals. Now you have one - and it could be the same - but it needs to go through an Invader. You had a system for determining the ownership of land. Now you have a new one, in the language of the Invader. You traded in one kind of coin. Now, you trade in their coin, buy from their merchants, sell to their soldiers.

They will do their best to suppress any local structures that they cannot infiltrate and control. Religion is often the first to go. Break down cultural and familial ties. Take children from their homes and raise them in new areas. If a culture or group has something that makes them distinct - dietary laws, costumes, languages - ban or restrict it. Punish dissent. Destroy or co-opt charismatic leaders, centers of belief, and rallying points.

These things aren't necessarily evil or good. The Invaders might have a nuanced view of their own actions, or they might be ruthlessly pragmatic, or they might consider their actions justified by religion, civilization, or economics. They could replace a cruel hierarchy with a meritocracy or religious oppression with benign toleration.

But the Invaders will always try to benefit. They are not changing the world for you. If you were deeply invested in the old system, they are almost certainly evil.

In the next post, I'll cover reasons for invasion, possible encounters, and the Orcs of my setting.


OSR: Revised Table of Races + 10 Neural Network Races

In a medieval setting it's hard to get players to care about the petty regional feuds between people from not-Wessex and not-Sussex, but they immediately "get" the local friction between froglings vs flylings. There might be bunch of races but they're all from the same country, effectively. One worldview. In a standard setting they'd all be one race.

Each race has a minor bonus and a minor weakness. They also have a stat they can reroll during character creation and take the higher result. I think it works better than a flat bonus. The bonuses and weaknesses are designed to encourage old-school tactics, weird combinations, clever plans, and interesting differences between otherwise identical characters. I deliberately left the races vague; the players filled out the details as they came up during play.
Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar, MS. 107 (1302-1303),
fol. n.c., Bibliothèque de Codecom, Verdun.
Side Note: In my view, the primary medieval category for reactions is rank, not race or nationality. This starts to change by the mid 14th century as national identities coalesce, but for western Europe before the 14th century, or Italy before the 12th and the rise of the city-state, people were generally sorted people by rank, not origin.

The King of the Dog-Headed People fits into the "King" category first before he fits into the "Dog-Headed People" category. If you meet him, treat him like a king. This goes for nobles of all ranks and sizes. Doesn't matter if they are elves from across the sea, if they throw babies into furnaces, if they wear silly hats. Sort them by your worldview into Kings, Queens, Princes, Lords, Barons, Knights, Bishops, Priests, etc. and react accordingly.

Even if you hate the Welsh, you'll grant them princes and lords. You might be at war with a hated foreign enemy but you're going to treat a hated foreign prince closer to the way you'd treat a local prince than to the way you'd treat a local peasant.
Amazons, Le secret de l'histoire naturelle
France ca. 1480-1485 (BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r)

Tactics my groups have used:
-making a Slugling a mobile anchor for a rope ladder
-gnomes evading pursuit by turning invisible just around a corner
-giving the hawkling magic night vision goggles

Things we have learned:
-Antlings are detailed in this post. They look like formians, but tidier. They think everyone is female unless told otherwise, and they hate being left alone or being excluded from social groups.
-Spiderlings are basically medieval jewish driders. The rich urban spiderlings weave, lend money, and live in walled districts filled with smaller spiders, web-branches, and nests. Poor rural spiderlings are distrusted by everyone. They have their own religious code, keep strange holidays, and associated mostly with each other. If there's a mob, someone will inevitably suggest burning the local spiderlings.

-Elves are beautiful. They own beauty like mer-folk own the sea. Elves need to Save vs Ugliness. If they see something particularly ugly, badly made, or gruesome they tend to run away, stare, drop whatever they are holding, burst into tears, or go into a murderous rage. Sometimes it's a mix of several options. Elves have several dozen names. Nobody else cares. They have an innate and almost unshakable self-confidence. An elf in the middle of a disaster will smile and assume it will all turn out well; there's simply no way Creation could harm them. An elf will never admit incompetence or failure.

-Sluglings put on genders like other people put on hats. Everyone else pretends not to notice.

-Houndlings look like humans with the faces of bloodhounds. Jowly, docile, snuffling, but obedient. "Fetch" jokes are not treated kindly. They are cheerful thugs.

-Toadlings and Froglings are feuding.
Roll Race Reroll Bonus Weakness
1-15 Human Choice Start with 1 extra random item -4 to resist being mutated or transformed
16-20 Elf CHA Eat half as many rations Save vs Ugliness or shun it
21 Gnome INT Can become invisible if you close eyes, hold breath, don't move -2 to DEX for Move
22 Spiderling DEX Can secrete 30' of rope per day Cannot see more than 30'
23 Magpieling DEX Always knows the approximate value of mundane items Must Save or pick up shiny objects
24 Eelling INT Take half damage while grappling Cannot see anything nearer than 1'
25 Antling CON +2 to STR for Inventory Slots Save vs Fear when alone
26 Hedgehogling WIS +2 Defense Cannot wear armour on chest or limbs
27 Deerling CHA Antlers (as a club) When afraid, will run instead of freezing
28 Slothling STR Cannot be Frightened Always Surprised
29 Mouseling WIS Can very convincingly play dead -2 to Strength for Inventory Slots
30 Boarling CON Tusks (as a dagger) Constant snuffling. -2 to DEX for Stealth
31 Hawkling INT Can see detail at a great distance Must eat uncooked food
32 Houndling CHA Can track a creature by smell Save vs Commands
33 Beetleling STR +1 Defense, half fall damage Cannot wear armour on chest or limbs
34 Fishling CON Can hold breath for 5 minutes Drink twice as much water as usual
35 Swanling DEX Can shout and sing incredibly well Cursed. -2 to Save.
36 Owlling WIS Can rotate head 180 degrees Cough up disgusting pellets after every meal
37 Slugling STR Cannot be pushed in combat Salt is deadly to you
38 Flyling DEX Can eat rotten food as rations Will never notice details unless they move
39 Rabbitling DEX Jump twice as high When afraid, will freeze instead of running
40 Gooseling CON Prehensile neck, can fit through small spaces When afraid, Save or attack enemy
41 Ravenling CHA Can eat rotten food as rations Must Save or pick up shiny objects
42 Weaselling STR Can crawl through narrow spaces Must eat uncooked food
43 Frogling CHA Prehensile tongue (as a whip) Drink twice as much water as usual
44 Toadling STR Jump twice as high Contagious warts
45 Ratling INT Can crawl through narrow spaces Save vs Fear when alone
46 Goatling DEX No Move penalties for broken or hilly terrain Pervasive, unique stink
47 Foxling WIS Half time taken to forage Cannot tell the direct, blunt truth
48 Wormling INT Can shrink or grow from your base height by 25% as an Action -2 to STR for Inventory Slots
49 Flealing STR Can drink blood as rations Cannot wear armour on chest or limbs
50 Batling WIS Can roll Wis to "hear" walls and major fixtures in the dark. Will never notice details unless they move
Mauro Belfiore

10 Neural Network Races

Here are 10 races generated by Janelle Shane's neural network (and voted on by you).

I probably wouldn't roll on this table in under normal circumstances, but maybe if the player's last character died in a spectacular and horrible way I'd allow it.
Roll Race Reroll Bonus Weakness
1 Catkolin DEX Take 1/2 fall damage. Save or disobey any direct commands or orders
2 Copper Knight CON +6 Defense Cannot wear armour. Must eat 100cp as rations
3 Elf (Warper) WIS Take 1 damage to teleport 10' in a random directionStart with -2 HP. Save vs Ugliness or shun it
4 Fetchling DEX Can appear as a copy of a person looking at them Save vs Fear against bright lights
5 Necropolion WIS Immune to disease and weather effects. Save vs Fear against holy symbols.
6 Orcane INT Take 2 damage to reroll 1 MD on a damage-dealing spell -2 to Save
7 Poreborn STR Can drink blood as rations -2 to Strength for Inventory Slots
8 Short Dwarf CON Reduce all incoming physical damage by 1 2' high. All armour must be custom built
9 Tireling STR Produce 1 cubic foot of rags per dayDouble damage from fire.
10 Wordzing CHA Can read all languages Save or read aloud any text you see.

1. Catkolin
There are very few "catlings" Around Here. Maybe there are some in Foreign Parts, where they war with dog-headed kobolds and live in the shadow of the Sphinx. Yet, in some regions, you can find solitary Catkolins. Their fur is dark and drinks the light. Their eyes are large and yellow. They would make excellent assassins if it wasn't for their habitual disobedience, laziness, and pettiness. They are disgusted by work, contemptuous of rank, and easily bribed by luxuries, vanities, and trinkets. Seen at night, it is easy to imagine why villagers mistake them for demons and drive them away with arrows and torches.

2. Copper Knight
In the hills, where ancient stone roads are still visible beneath the scrub, you can sometimes find Copper Knights. Their villages are always found near rivers. Despite appearances they are living things. Cut them open and, so traveler say, you will find a sort of crab or worm inside. They spin armour like a shell. They are proud warriors, fiercely independent, and they live where no one else will, so their settlements are rarely disturbed. They trade olives, wine, and apricots for copper and silk. Their armour is elaborate and strong. It weighs nothing to them. They fight with a duelist's grace and tact; a maimed opponent will be spared. They grow in different shapes; some with protected shoulders, some with spiked arms, some with slab-faced helms and hammer fists. 

3. Elf (Warper)
Elves are difficult to make. Sometimes things go wrong. Intensely magical, Warper Elves are jittery, unstable creatures. They have a manic and haunted look. Something seems to swim beneath the skin, half-real, half visible, dragging them through life at an uncomfortable pace. They can flicker in and out of existence, potentially avoiding damage or injury, but often flinging themselves into danger, into the path of allies, or off cliffs. 

4. Fetchling
In their true form, or if seen in mirrors or through leaded glass, Fetchlings are small, stick-thin humanoids with horse-skull faces. They live on a few rocky and treeless islands surrounded by stormy seas. Unnervingly, to mortal eyes, they appear as shimmering duplicates, spectral copies of the viewer. Their appearance is usually enough to send superstitious sailors screaming back to their boates. Despite church propaganda, relatively few Fetchlings become necromancers, and those that do rarely raise embodied undead.

5. Necropolion
Immortality at a price. The bog-witches know how to make them. Carve out the heart, pack herbs and dried worms into the cavity, stitch up the body, throw the heart into the bog. The victim rises, cured of any diseases. They will live forever. Not dead and not undead, but detached. Life's joys are muted. Life's sorrows fall heavily. 

6. Orcane
Orcs live in the north, where the snow never melts. If you spend a few months in a major city, you may meet someone who has met someone who seen them. They are remote. They do not fear the cold. They live in the sea and on the land. They have fought many wars.

Orcanes are their spies or agents or missionaries. No one is sure, not even the Orcane. Human sailors, shipwrecked, dredged, fed, healed. Branded on the back of the skull by orc-marks. Memories washed away by cold seawater.The orcs see through their eyes, hear their thoughts. Orcanes make powerful casters. They can draw on the strength of their distant patrons. 

7. Poreborn
The living blood. Someone falls sick, lies in bed, screams, sweats, and dies. A poreborn emerges with foggy memories of their host. They are apologetic. They did not mean any harm. They look like a person made of congealed blood. It's less horrible then you think; more like a statue made of wet stone. They are not strong. Most are killed immediately. Perhaps, in Foreign Parts, they are worshiped. They have a heart, a brain, skin, eyes. One type of cell rewritten to serve as many. 

8. Short Dwarf
Just another kind of dwarf, I suppose? Who can say. Creation is a vast place. Two foot tall but as broad and as heavy as a normal person. Compressed, like a squashed fruit. Wide mouth, drooping nose, wrinkled eyes, waddling gait. Helmet like a dinner plate. Some people joke that they were all crushed in a terrible mining accident. They talk with helium munchkin voices, but they are deadly serious, sober, and intelligent. They are used to fighting things much larger than them and crawling for miles through soaking mud-filled tunnels. You don't scare them. 

9. Tirelings
From "Attirelings". A heap of filthy cloth with bare human feet. Little eyes peer from beneath the hood. They come from far away and settle in cities. To most, they are just another variety of beggar, but this is their chosen mode of life. Beneath the cloth they are like stick insects. They love fabric. They love its texture, its softness, its weave. They lay their slow-maturing eggs in it and scatter them through the world. Inside the cloth shell, dozens of arms weave and unweave, miraculously producing rags from almost anything. 

10. Wordzing
Linguist-slaves from Foreign Parts. Humans, but pale and long-haired, with worn peg-like teeth. Their eyes have been replaced with enchanted opals. They see all languages and obsessively read text. Worth their weight in gold to some; a dangerous liability to others, for ciphers and codes unravel beneath their gaze. They are notorious for blurting out secrets. Some escape from their captors to find a life of their own. Some, reading orders for a revolt, an execution, or a trap, flee before the axe falls. And some find hints of treasure and power in ancient text, raise funds, and vanish into parts unknown.