In Which I Teach the Jokers D&D: RPG Actual Play

Hey again everybody.

This is a little story from when I was still living in Scotland. Now, to clarify: first, the Jokers of the title are a group of Australians, one of whom is a former comedy colleague of mine from back in the old country. Now, they’d been jetting around Europe on a binge of new experiences, and realised at some point that they had never played Dungeons and Dragons. For privacy, lets call these guys Jerry, George and Kramer. So, in their ignorance, they approached me in the hope that I could DM for them. Now, those who know me know that I don’t really get along with D&D, so for the nitpickers what I gave them wasn’t actually D&D. What I gave them was a lazily reskinned version of the Hollow Earth Expedition’s Ubiquity rules with enough Lord of the Rings and Adventure Time references to make it seem authentic.

So that did away with things like feats, classes, levels, and firm ideas of good and evil that would normally annoy me. What it produced was a sort of deranged psychadelia that was somewhere between Looking for Group and In Bruges. This was not aided by Jerry, my former comedy comrade, having bought litres of Sainsburies budget cider, scotch and Irn Bru.

So, I brewed up these characters over a lunch break at work, and then did a half arsed series of “how do you know each other” questions. So, given the circumstances, this is what the guys came up with.

Jerry chose the thief option, and came to the conclusion that he was a depraved drug dealing Hobbit named (I think…) Lenny. He is deeply dissapointed in his son, Aragorn, for the boy’s lack of adventuring spirit.
George went with the ranger, going with the ever popular name Aragorn, and named his wolf companion Pongo. As it turned out, he was a half elf half hobbit, Lenny being his father. Despite his father’s wishes, Aragorn really just wanted to dance and introduce rhinestone body jewelry to the Dwarf diaspora.
Kramer went with the barbarian option, an Uruk Hai of ambiguous gender who was Lemmy’s current lover, named (perhaps…?) Rok. Ze did not got along with Aragorn, disliking the smell of his soap. Ze had a bear spirit totem, because I was drinking and playing Shadowrun Dragonfall a lot at that point.

So, that was the party we started out with. Not traditional, by any means, but you replace D&D morality with something a bit more relativistic and you can work cider soaked wonders.

Wonders and horrors, as it turns out.

Our story begins with our strange group being summoned by Cerwyn Kneesmasher, Godfather of the local Hobbit mafia, who wanted a group of professional murderers to look into something for him. They were to travel two towns over, to Brookmeadow, and find out why an associate of his hadn’t sent a package. In exchange for this they would each receive a “fuckoff pouch of gold”. Aragorn attempted to negotiate for more, and received the response that Cerwyn would break their legs if they failed in the assignment. So they agreed. Lenny picked Cerwyn’s pocket, finding a ring labelled “totally not cursed” (every hobbit should have one), and threw himself out the window. Rok and Aragorn left by the stairs, stopping to pull Lenny out of the hedge.

Cerwyn had recommended that they stay at the town of Happyhat halfway along their journey, so the gang started hitch hiking. When an old peasant on a cart rolled up,  they promptly killed and butchered the horse. The peasant continued to chew his piece of grass, fairly unsurprised. The party debated what to do now that their only transport was crippled, and Rok ended up pulling the cart. They camped for the night, Rok climbed a tree to go on lookout, and promptly fell down again when Aragorn shot zir in the buttock. Lenny chewed him out while applying ointment to Rok’s wound, until Pongo ate his stash of hallucinogens and ran off screaming into the woods.

In the morning, the adventurers realised that Rok could no longer pull the cart with zir wounded leg. Thus the gang started walking. Aragorn stopped to put an arrow through the old peasant’s head as he sat by his cart. The arrow went through, but the old man kept chewing his blade of grass.

A week later the characters arrived at Happyhat, lost and on the edge of starvation. Lenny decided to sneak in, and when he did not return by morning the others went into the town and find him sharing a chicken with the town’s morbidly obese mayor. Lenny found the mayor’s chatter irksome, and seduced him, Aragorn filming the resulting orgy with the help of a local wizard. As the shoot proceeded, the mayor explained that all was not well in Happyhat, with Heckroaster the dragon returning tonight to collect on demands they could not meet.

After the shoot was over, Aragorn went looking for some repair work. He found Granite, a dwarven smith who was currently working on a dragon restraint collar. Granite was cagey, but Aragorn broached the subject of whether she would be interested in some intimate rhinestone apparel.

He woke up later that night with a hammer wound to the head, hanging naked from the town gate with his genitals covered in rhinestones. Rok and Lenny came to rescue him as Heckroaster approached, Rok chopping down the gate and trapping Aragorn beneath it.

Then, Heckroaster burst through the treeline, fiery breath lighting up the night. Lenny fled in terror, and Aragorn screamed for Pongo. Rok was the only one who realised that the dragon was made of papier mache, and piloted by five gnomes.

After a brief battle in which Rok used zir own flaming, oiled body to destroy the dragon and Lenny returned only to be knifed to death by gnomes. Rok managed to kill the remaining gnomes with zir fuckoff big axe, and prayed that Bear would revive zir fallen lover. Bear, being a fairly forgiving character, returned the depraved Hobbit to life.
Meanwhile, after a still tripping Pongo chewed through Aragorn’s bonds, the eflhobbit began hunting naked through the streets, looking for revenge on the dwarves. He was confronted by Allejandro Montoya, the notorious dwarf ninja, and held at nunchaku point briefly before shooting him through the eye, killing him instantly.
It was around this point that the question was asked what they were meant to be doing here. I responded that Happyhat was meant to be their rest stop.

Having defeated the “dragon”, Rok made it’s head into a cape, and the gang continued to Brookmeadow. Where they found their contact murdered, and descended into a self destructive cycle of drug use and uncertainty. That’s where the session ended.

So yeah, heroic fantasy at its best.

It was interesting to play with newbies, especially with the express idea of making the session as madcap as possible. I inevitably improvise most of what goes into an rp session, and the Jokers latched onto making this fictional world as strange as possible. Veterans of improv games, I knew they would have a good time with the collaborative storytelling element of the game, but I was surprised at how exciting they found rolling the dice. Which was interesting. I suppose I always phrased it like a wager, and it got really good results.

So. That was weird.  Have a good one folks.

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Orcs Should Talk to their Union

Hello, The Hobbit.

I’ve not really been one for watching films, but I’ve found it hard to avoid you. With your run through the cinemas and the terrible weight of your legacy, the Battle of Five Armies has proven to be something that I cannot avoid.

To be honest, I haven’t enjoyed the Hobbit films so much. I’m not saying that their not good films, they certainly have their poignant moments and a number of interesting characters. And Cybele knows I’m not trying to shame you for liking the film. As I’ve said, their powerful and exciting movies. The story of the dwarf prince, his friends and their unlikely allies struggling to reclaim their homeland from the greedy Smaug have been powerful images to me since my childhood; they’re full of this terrible sense of legacy and familial duty that makes their quest sing in the heart of someone as pluralistic and ill-committed as myself. The story is both simple and surprising; the heroes face everything from goblin warriors, to hallucinogenic elves, to the riddles of a creature that sits beyond recognition, who only came into focus in later stories. It was one of the big stories in my childhood.

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Photo: Another Orc by Raoul van Wijk, courtesy of Flickr.

I don’t think that my disapproval is because I enjoyed the story when I was a child, though I feel what was once a children’s story has been made into an adult one. Essentially, the Hobbit under Jackson’s directorship has become more like the Lord of the Rings; the farcical violence, the Classical themed games of words and wits, and even the brilliant incompetence of both heroes and villains has been replaced by a sort of gung-ho, warlike action film. There have been moments, such as when the dwarves are escaping Barry Humphries’ morbidly obese goblin clutches in the first film, where it even began to feel a little like a scripted video game, with each character getting to show of their special combat move. The violence is visceral, in your face. The forgone conclusions, the assumption of knowledge of the Lord of the Rings, strip the menace from Gollum’s threats. So much of the primal fear that comes with the abstracts of a children’s story, the empty spaces to be filled with frantic, terrifying imagination, is lost.

But in the end, I don’t think this is what put me off. You might say “Oh, you self indulgent writer you, you’ve burned like 400 words on this already, why haven’t you got to the damned point?”, and I suppose there is legitimacy to that argument. I have made this long preamble because I loved this old story. I have written this article because I deeply dislike what has become of the Orcs.

The Orcs really, really need to have a chat with their union. The man upstairs with the eye is not paying them nearly enough for the crap they put up with from those damn self righteous heroes.

This is not to say that I dislike what Peter Jackson has done with his Orcish villains. They are just as fearsome and terrifying as I’m sure Tolkien would have wanted them in his later books, though as mentioned before they were little developed beyond a strange, chaotic force in the Hobbit. What really strikes me is how poorly the Orcs are treated, by both their masters and by the supposed good guys of the films. Nobody questions at any point that Orcs need murdering, despite obviously being sentient, and the Orcs respond to this hatred with violence.

So lets take some of that weight of hindsight the series seems to assume we’re applying, to remember one of Christopher Lee’s lines from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Orcs are Elves.

Orcs are not demons, or automatons, or attack dogs. They are the most proud, beautiful and long lived of the races of Middle Earth, the very foundations that the gods put in place when they decided to populate their world with living things. And they were broken, tortured by a Nemesis, Morgoth, that nobody bothers to remember. They are a mere margin away from being “one of us”. And they are hated for it.

The Elves hate the Orcs because they remind them that once you scratch the surface they are not beautiful. You burn out the fine features, and the pride and the layers of racial superiority propaganda, and all you have left is the grief of an immortal trapped in a transient world. The Dwarves hate the Orcs because of competition, because the Orcs thrive in all the same environments and are unfettered by the terrible greed that weighs on the Dwarf psyche. The Orcs hold mirrors up to these races, and show that for all their history and civilisation they are still fatally flawed.

zx Niccolo Caranti - Orcs!
Photo: Orcs! by Niccolo Caranti, courtesy of Flickr.

Humans have grown up fighting the Orcs, a fight that has been going on since before their own birth as a species.They feature less in this story, and by the Lord of the Rings, slaughtering Orcs en masse has just become the done thing. The Orc holds up a mirror to human beings, because they are both desperate, and lash out in this desperation and fear of death.

As for Hobbits, well. Orcs seem a far off threat in the Shire. There is that whisper though, a whimper of “my precious” down in the dark paths of the soul, that suggests that maybe a Hobbit could see an Orc as worthy of something other than hate. There is a reason Bilbo doesn’t knife Gollum in the face to escape the cave, though that may have been in line with the tone of the rest of the film. From memory he just fly kicked him the head, to keep things interesting.

Frankly, the heroes look like a bunch of jerks.

I suppose, in the face of giving the Orcs more character, a more fleshed out back story, and wants and needs of their own, Jackson made a dichotomy for me where I couldn’t really stand to see the Orcs as evil any more. Yes, they’re vicious, and they have a shit-tonne of hate that they can’t really deal with, but when the reflex of the apparently civilised races is “kill them because they were born that way” that becomes alarmingly understandable. Throughout the series we see Orcs speaking, scheming and striving. They crack jokes. But never once do the heroes of the tale try to speak to an Orc.

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Photo: Orc.jpg by First Last, courtesy of Flickr.

They slaughter them in a manner that feels more like a splatterpunk zombie film than a heroic adventure.

One might argue that there is nothing one could say to an Orc that would stop them wanting to kill you. But I can think of one thing.

“Help me topple your master. I want to help you.”

Of course nobody tried that. An argument against this idea is fear of the Orc’s terrible master, but that holds a lot less water in the face of the Hobbit than when Sauron’s power is in its heyday in later stories. I can almost imagine a mass withdrawal of labour looking a little something like this:

Grazgut, Orc Union Rep: Sorry to be the one to say this boss, but we’re walking. Sick of you making us chase those damn runts. We’re not coming back until our demands are met.

Dark Lord Sauron: No! You traitorous swine! Guards, dispatch this filth!

Grazgut: Not gonna happen your Dark Lordness. The guards are on strike as well. Sick of your, what did they call it… negative reinforcement of good workplace behaviour? The whipping, basically.

Sauron: Curse you, you tiny abomination! You cannot deny me, I am your master!

Grazgut: Well, the gang have begun to see you less as a giant eye and more as a giant dickhead, so we’re off. Send us a Nazgul when you’re ready to renegotiate.

Sauron: You are delusional! My dread lieutenant, the Witch King of Angmar, will break you like the dog you are! No man may slay the Witch King…

Grazgut: You might want to reconsider your wording there boss. Might encounter a bit of a problem when the prophesied protection of your favoured enforcers isn’t valid for 99% of your workforce.

Sauron: …

Alright fine. What was your name? Gobnut?

Grazgut: Grazgut.

Sauron: Very well Grazgut, in my terrible benevolence I shall cede unto you a break room, with tea and coffee making facilities, and aim to reduce flogging in the workplace by ten percent over a period of-

Grazgut: Not good enough.

Sauron: What???

Grazgut: We’ve had a better offer from Akhenata Queen of the Damned. Her employee rest space has bean bags, and ghoul pay beats no pay, thankyou…

Grazgut begins to leave the Monstrous Crucible.

Sauron: No… wait… you can’t collectively bargain, your on individual… shit.

Well, now that little interlude’s finished, I suppose I can get back to the article proper.

Now, part of this is genre. Tolkien wrote in a line of heroic fantasy in which killing your enemies still seems like a valid solution to your problems. Now, that has been subverted and examined a great deal. As many works, recently Game of Thrones have shown, everybody is connected, and killing somebody often just creates more problems. And Jackson’s Orcs aren’t Tolkiens. They feel much more human.

I think a huge part of it is how our society treats its… I can’t even describe the category. Outcasts works, but it doesn’t get into nuts and bolts enough to feel personal. In The Hobbit’s Orcs, I see Fight Club‘s disenfranchised young men, beating each other and tearing down society because they’ll never be allowed what they work for. In The Hobbit’s Orcs, I see the mentally disturbed killers in Criminal Minds, who are gunned down by police officers in an alarming number of episodes for the crime of mental illness. In the Hobbit’s Orcs I see protestors in the USA driven to violence after state employees, “keepers of the peace”, murder without repercussion. They could be any marginalised group in our society, and the heroes seem as willing to demonize them as any paranoid news program or vote grabbing politico.

I think that the Hobbit’s remorseless murder of those deemed outsiders reflects something about us. In the book, goblins were a near elemental force, certainly dangerous, but the enmity did not feel like hate.

Some part of us wanted this. Some part of us is so terrified of our society’s problems, be it mental illness, violence, disabilities, or anybody else who falls outside the herd, that we wish to destroy them. Because those problems can afflict anyone. They are everyone’s problem, and thus everyone’s responsibility, and yet the media of the main stream feels the need to beat down these problems, because destroying something is easier than helping it.

Maybe I should just accept the Hobbit films for what they are. A thrilling heroic fantasy. I don’t want to be preachy and spoil the fun for everybody else.

But I just cannot feel that hate for the Orcs any more. I can’t cheer for the destruction of these hurt, desperate creatures. Their masters, yeah, fuck the torturing fascists right in the eye. But the Orcs didn’t ask for this.

The Orc holds up his mirror, one more time. I don’t look. Its better not to. Maybe the monster and I can walk out of here together, without fear. I hope that’s how it ends.

I don’t know.

Well I guess it ends with Peter Jackson going to bed on a huge pile of money, but hell, good for him.

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Photo: Goblins aka Orcs by Andrew Becraft, courtesy of Flickr.

All photos acquired through Flickr. They are all Creative Commons and free for you to use or manipulate and use in your own work, as long as you don’t profit from their use, the owner is credited and your own work is subject to the same freedoms. So, on that note, surprise! I don’t get paid to write this, and you all are free to butcher this so-called “article” and use it in whatever nefarious deeds your strange minds can conjure. Enjoy!