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Reviews - Skraag: City of Orcs
 
by Matthew Pook


Skraag cover Title: Skraag - City of Orcs
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Written by Wil Upchurch
Cover by Ralph Horsley
Price: $14.95
64-page softbound cover

For their fifth and latest series of d20 supplements, Mongoose Publishing aims to concentrate upon 'Cities of Fantasy.' Each entry is designed as an entire city that can be dropped straight into an already existing campaign, or form the basis of a campaign of its own. The first City of Fantasy is Skraag - City of Orcs, which takes a leaf out of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in that it's actually a former Dwarven outpost now infested by Orcs, somewhat like the Mines of Moria.

Barring one or two typographical errors, Skraag - City of Orcs is laid out to Mongoose's typical high standard. Orc illustrations are liberally sprinkled throughout, and while some of these are a little rough, most are rather good -- the work of both Philip Renne and David Griffith is uniformly excellent. What does let the look of Skraag - City of Orcs down are the rather rough maps, which fail to convey as much information as they ought.

Spoilers Sighted Ahead
As the book informs us, Skraag was once the Dwarven trading post of Ironhallow Hall. The dispossessed Ironhallow clan founded their new home in a network of Troglodyte-infested caves over seven hundred years ago, and expanded upon them as the centuries passed. One hundred years ago, an Orc horde descended upon Ironhallow Hall, slaughtering all before them and driving the Dwarves out. The horde stayed and feasted, and with their Orc forces at near exhaustion point, its leaders realizing that they had found a home in the caves and the mountainside plain before them. They re-named it Skraag, new base of operations for the horde. Two decades ago, the horde had grown lazy and their shaman, Akrilla, predicted that a great catastrophe would strike Skraag. It did, and the Orc warlords took the opportunity to both blame the great storm known as the Fury of the Maimed Lord on the shaman Akrilla, and reorganize the horde.

The warlords exiled the shaman and rallied the horde, telling their warriors that they had grown complacent, that they should go out and destroy in their god's name, or suffer the vengeance of the Maimed Lord. Since then, the bulk of the horde has remained away from Skraag, warlords taking it in turns to bring their forces back to the city for rest and recuperation. A city master, Cylus Groon, who maintains order through his lieutenants, currently runs the city. Despite the lack of trade with the outside world, Groon has made himself rich skimming off monies from various sources. These include the loot returned to Skraag by the horde, the meagre services provided for the returned troops and the taxes he occasionally levies upon Skraag's inhabitants. Groon also nominally controls the only source of water in the city, an underground lake. He has alliances with the Blackmuck tribe of Orcs, who maintain and repair the city's siege enginery, and the Ugreckt tribe. These are hobgoblins, hired to maintain Skraag's defenses and to manufacture weaponry for the horde in a closed off section of the city. Of course, neither side of these alliances trust the other.

Naturally, the city master has his enemies, and chief amongst them is Grogan Thral. Grogan commands Skraag's Home Force of the horde, permanently garrisoned to provide the city's primary defense. Thral constantly looks for evidence of Groon's misdeeds so he can topple Groon and take his place. Both Thral and Groon have to answer to the war master of the horde, Thak, and though he might be aware of the scheming between them, the truth is that Groon keeps Skraag running along quite smoothly for an Orc. Another enemy actively operating against the city is the Dwarven Resistance. Their leaders are the Warriors of the Nine, who were captured in the final defense of Ironhallow Hall and mutilated by their Orc captors. Subsequently released, they now work from a secret base in the caverns below Skraag, conducting guerrilla strikes, and on occasion even attempting to assassinate both Cylus Groon and Grogan Thal.

Life in Skraag is nasty, brutal and often short. Food is scarce and water severely rationed, Groon's lieutenants levy frequent taxes, and infractions against the City Master's word can result in death, or at least assignment to a work detail. Orc religion in Skraag is also painful. The deity who holds sway in the city is Alodai, also known as the Nine-Fingered or Maimed Lord. Worship of Alodai invariably involves self-abuse in the form of flogging. Opposing Alodai is the demon Kharkus, and membership of his cult will get you killed in Skraag. This heretical cult believes that Kharkus has already replaced Alodai, and so they are not themselves opposed to the worship of the Maimed Lord. Another cult in Skraag worships a deity called Asphibyiex, which they believe resides in the lake below Skraag. The Asphibyiex doctrine holds him responsible for the great storm two decades before, and that another storm is imminent. The cult also believes they can become closer to their god by becoming undead. Amongst their secret knowledge is the creation of the Lake Zombie, a nasty aquatic twist upon the traditional zombie.

Besides detailing the movers and shakers within Skraag, the book includes information about the smaller factions within the city. There is a disorganised band of Goblins surviving under the Orc's snouts, though some do cooperate as the nearest thing Skraag has to a thieves' guild. This is in addition to the Blackmuck and Hobgoblin tribes. Outside of the city, the shaman Akrilla still lurks, her plans unknown. Other factions within the ever-warring horde itself are also detailed.

Other sections of the book cover its defenses, and provide a guided tour of its major locations, above and below ground. All of the major NPCs are listed at the back of the book, as well as archetypes for various types of common Orcs that might be encountered in Skraag. It should be pointed out that many of the major NPCs are very tough: both Cylus Groon and War Master Thak have a challenge rating of eighteen!

Skraag - City of Orcs also includes several new Prestige Classes. For the new faiths, there is the Order of Kharkus and the Disciples of Asphibyiex, and for Orcs aiming to gain the favor of Cylus Groon, there is the Silver Tusk Prestige Class, the group his lieutenants belong to. The Warriors of the Nine have their own Prestige Class, for those that wish to join the Dwarven Resistance. To get the most out of these new classes, the DM will need another two of Mongoose Publishing's supplements, both from their Encyclopaedia Arcana series: Demonology - The Dark Road for the Order of Kharkus, and Necromancy - Beyond The Grave for the Disciples of Asphibyiex. This is in addition to The Slayer's Guide To Hobgoblins, which the DM will find useful when running the Ugreckt tribe.

The last part of the book discusses how to use Skraag in a campaign. It suggests three possible campaigns, of which the first is designed for low-level characters. This finds them the inhabitants of a small mining town threatened by movements of the horde. The characters must find allies in the druids and rangers that monitor the movements around Skraag in order to save their home. In second campaign, for high-level characters, the heroes must prevent the Orcs from taking advantage of an abandoned Drow stronghold and thus being able to cut an important trade route. The last campaign concentrates upon the Dwarven resistance in the caverns below Skraag. These three campaigns are useful, but the author really does miss out upon a golden opportunity presented in Skraag -- the chance to play the denizens of the city itself! Characters are a little limited and Orc dominated, but the chance to play a party of Orcs -- and this is before we throw Goblins and Hobgoblins into the mix -- is not one to miss. There is plenty of opportunity for interaction, intrigue and roleplaying throughout Skraag, and it is such a pity that it is ignored. To be honest, it would be a waste to use Skraag as a giant killing ground for a party to visit and play in. There are plots ongoing within the city, but the referee is going to have to work hard to get the players into a position to learn of them if they are not Orcs themselves.

Skraag - City of Orcs is the inaugural book in a new series, and although this first release may not be perfect, it is a well-described location, ready to drop into almost any campaign, be it Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, or scaled up from a city to a planet to place it in a Dragonstar game. It really would work best as the setting for an all-Orc game, and both player and DM alike will get the most out of this book if Skraag is used like this. In a non-Orc game, the book is less effective, as the players will really have to work incredibly hard to discover and exploit any information about, let alone the secrets of, Skraag.


 

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