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Robots & Cyborgs & Oz, Oh My!

The Wizard of Oz has become iconic thanks to the titular movie that established L. Frank Baum's world. And yet, there are over a dozen of books set in Oz in the public domain that go well beyond the world we glimpsed in the film. They in turn spawned several role-playing games.

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It Started with a Book

The Wizard of Oz movie was based on author L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. The movie is relatively faithful to the book with some of the rougher edges filed off: at one point, the Scarecrow murders a flock of crows by snapping their necks, and the Tin Woodman chops off the heads of 40 wolves. Most important, Oz is not just a dream of Dorothy's -- by the sixth book, Dorothy convinces her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em to move to Oz permanently with her, escaping their difficult life in Kansas, proving once and for all that Oz is real.

Although Baum wrote 14 novels about Oz as well as several short story compilations, he had an ambivalent relationship with his most popular fantasy land. Baum wrote several other fantasy stories set in other realms including Queen Zixi of Ix (Ix and Noland), The Surprising Adventures of the Magical Monarch of Mo and His People (The Valley of Mo), The Sea Fairies (Underwater), John Dough and the Cherub (several islands, including HiLo Land), and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (The Laughing Valley of Hohaho). When it became clear that Oz would outlast them all, Baum begrudgingly added them into the Oz universe in his fifth book, establishing all of the characters from the other novels as being part of Oz canon.

Baum was a transmedia visionary, producing movies and stage plays, and even attempts at an Oz-themed amusement park. Baum was considerably less successful with his finances and lost money on several of his ventures.

The Oz Legacy

Baum's work is often overlooked as kid-literature, but it contained several important milestones that were revolutionary at the time. The Tin Woodman is essentially a cyborg, having lost all of his limbs with all of them replaced with tin prosthetics. Several characters are gender-fluid, including Chick the Cherub (them/they), Prince Marvel (a female fairy who transforms into a male knight), and Queen Ozma herself (who originally was a boy named Tip). Tik-Tok the Machine Man is one of the first robots in popular literature, and established the peculiar quirk of a robot speaking English ("speak-ing halt-ing-ly"). Baum's mother-in-law was a suffragette and feminiist activist, and her influence on many of the female characters of Oz are clear; much of Oz is ruled by women. Animal rights are also a frequent topic, as all animals can speak in Oz (yes, even Toto, he just chooses not to). Despite his progressive views, Baum frequently peppered his stories with racist caricatures.

Several of the characters have gone on to influence popular literature. The Nightmare Before Christmas is lifted from Jack Pumpkinhead and Scraps the Patchwork Girl of Oz, combined with a scene from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in which St. Nick is kidnapped. Jack even meets Santa in a short story.

Because Oz and many subsequent works set in that land are in the public domain, it has appeared in a variety of media through the years. Although Oz is aimed at children, it has become a popular setting to revisit with adult eyes, including tabletop role-playing games.

Oz RPGs

Given how popular Oz was in America, it's surprising there aren't more tabletop role-playing games using the setting. The below list doesn't include the role-playing games that included content inspired by Oz, of which there are too many to detail here.

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Bloodstone Press has several d20-compatible Oz supplements, providing them along with the stories, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Glinda of Oz, and The Magic of Oz.

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Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is a unique system set in Oz. It's available in Pay What You Want and softcover editions.

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Heroes of Oz by Darkstar Electic Media uses the Fudge rules to make it a fun game that can be played with children. The Quickstart rules, along with three supplements, are available for free.

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Battle for Oz by Pirate Press, LLC uses Savage Worlds to update the world with butt-kicking action more suitable for kick-in-the-door style play.

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Oz: Dark & Terrible is a grimdark take on Oz by S. Alexander Gentry that uses its own unique rules system.

With the Oz series in the public domain, it's perhaps not surprising that Baum's fairy land established the genre of American Fantasy. We'll discuss the implications of American Fantasy and its influence on role-playing games in a future article.
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

There were never any Highlander movies after the first one.

They never made any Alien movies after Alien 3. (And that last one may be apocryphal.)

And there were never any Oz books other than the ones L. Frank Baum wrote.

Although it's hard to imagine today, the Oz books were the Harry Potter books of the early 20th century, with Baum's non-Oz books doing very poorly in comparison and he was badgered -- as he says quite openly in the forewords to several of the Oz books -- into writing more Oz books. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, he actually tried to end the series -- he moved Dorothy's whole family to the Emerald City and cut off all communication to the outside world, so he could not further recount adventures relayed to him from there, but his readers pointed out that, hello, radio transmissions can get across the Deadly Desert, Baum.

Given how much content there is in even the 15 Baum books alone (counting a book of short stories, but not counting his newspaper strip or spin-off Woggle-Bug book), it is sort of surprising that there hasn't been a more comprehensive generic setting made out of it. (Especially now, when making kid-friendly games or games where violence isn't the right answer to all problems are more popular than ever.)

Of course, given how many people, both in the RPG industry or not, seem to think the only way to adapt the Oz books is to make them violent and/or sexy, maybe it's a good thing no one's really given it a serious try.
 
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In the original book, the Tin Woodsman straight up murders countless creatures. Instead of the affable and brave character of the movie, he is a death-dealing whirlwind.
 

In the original book, the Tin Woodsman straight up murders countless creatures. Instead of the affable and brave character of the movie, he is a death-dealing whirlwind.
The tone for most of the books is a lot closer to Return to Oz than it is the MGM movie. (The Hungry Tiger, an attempt to duplicate the success of the Cowardly Lion, is desperate to eat babies, although he feels too guilty to ever actually do so.) There are weird and sometimes dangerous creatures like the Wheelers around even long after Ozma has regained her throne.

In a lot of ways, it's a pretty good archetypal fantasy roleplaying setting, in that there seems to always be trouble over the next hill and no one locally equipped to deal with it other than protagonists who may be ill-equipped to do so. And the protagonist groups are a very motley bunch and always seem to have that player who wants to play a unique and wildly impractical character (I'm talking about you, Glass Cat).

Still, most problems are solved without death, a few wicked witches and other nasties aside.
 
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talien

Community Supporter
Of course, given how many people, both in the RPG industry or not, seem to think the only way to adapt the Oz books is to make them violent and/or sexy, maybe it's a good thing no one's really given it a serious try.
So much THIS.

I'm planning to release a comprehensive 5E-compatible book called Oz Adventures. Not including all the aforementioned stories set in the Oz universe, I've now included Baum's first six volumes. It's gotten so large I had to split it into a bestiary and a world book. It's easily going to take several months to finish it all.
 


Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Oz books usually feature a "party" of characters, each with their own special something that wander around Oz and the neighboring lands, trying to solve problems.

So it's ideal for RPG collaborative style play.

What's tough is for me is to put my head into that more "innocent" place and just try to solve the surface issue at hand, instead of trying to solve the underlying structural issues that have lead to the problem.

Like, they meet the witch with many heads who is basically a jerk, who wants to steal Dorothy's head to add to her collection. Yeah, ok, we can kill the witch; but maybe instead we should examine what makes her want to steal people's heads? Maybe she feels societal pressure to be young and pretty all the time - hmmm, maybe we should do something about that!

I think that Oz RPGs tend to write for the younger crowd (adventures in Oz - I remember being in some sort of forum or email list with Douglas Walls while he was working on it); OR go 100% over the top violent/sexy. I wonder if there's a middle ground that can be sort of Kids on Bikes; but in Oz? Tales from the Yellow Brick Road style using the Free League rules set? Hmmm...
 


talien

Community Supporter
What's tough is for me is to put my head into that more "innocent" place and just try to solve the surface issue at hand, instead of trying to solve the underlying structural issues that have lead to the problem.
I think your ideas are excellent. One of the things I had to solve for is why some characters can suffer significant bodily harm and others can't. The Valley of Mo (where characters are regularly dismembered and put back together like trolls) provides some answers and not a small amount of body horror.

One of my favorite examples of this is Dot and Tot in Merryland. They meet an animated doll (Queen Dolly), who has citizens she rules over that are not as cognizant as her. She animates them and then, if she leaves them be for too long, they start to riot.

In the dialogue with the two children, Dot and Tot, Queen Dolly casually mentions she has a choice between turning them into dolls or adopting them. And she frequently mentions having to consult her "thinking machine" which is never explained as to what or where it is. That doesn't include the people made of candy who eat each other when they break (and consider it an honor), the clowns who just want to perform in front of children, the babies birthed from flowers and managed by storks, or the valley of lost things.

Baum perfected his whimsy with Oz, but some of his stories are straight up terrifying. I think jaded adults have difficulty taking Oz at its face value because they want to "age it up" and make it more relatable. But Baum never talked down to his audience; he wrote for kids, but it wasn't necessarily kid writing. Modern authors don't need to make it more adult, the content is already there, it's just a question of how much the narrative engages with it.
 


Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I think your ideas are excellent. One of the things I had to solve for is why some characters can suffer significant bodily harm and others can't. The Valley of Mo (where characters are regularly dismembered and put back together like trolls) provides some answers and not a small amount of body horror.

One of my favorite examples of this is Dot and Tot in Merryland. They meet an animated doll (Queen Dolly), who has citizens she rules over that are not as cognizant as her. She animates them and then, if she leaves them be for too long, they start to riot.

In the dialogue with the two children, Dot and Tot, Queen Dolly casually mentions she has a choice between turning them into dolls or adopting them. And she frequently mentions having to consult her "thinking machine" which is never explained as to what or where it is. That doesn't include the people made of candy who eat each other when they break (and consider it an honor), the clowns who just want to perform in front of children, the babies birthed from flowers and managed by storks, or the valley of lost things.

Baum perfected his whimsy with Oz, but some of his stories are straight up terrifying. I think jaded adults have difficulty taking Oz at its face value because they want to "age it up" and make it more relatable. But Baum never talked down to his audience; he wrote for kids, but it wasn't necessarily kid writing. Modern authors don't need to make it more adult, the content is already there, it's just a question of how much the narrative engages with it.
Yeah. There was a line in one of the books that people can't die in Oz, but you can chop them up and their parts live on... Totally gruesome.

I wonder how one would mechanize that sort of whimsical horror...
 

Stacie GmrGrl

Adventurer
The thing about Oz is that it's not a children's story. It's a scary, violent, twisted, adult fantasy place.

I remember watching Return to Oz back in late 80s when I was a kid and that movie was freaky. It had the queen with the hallway of heads, the desert that turned everything living to dust, the freaky wheelers, crazy stuff.

Very much the opposite of the original musical, which is the most unfaithful adaptation ever made to Oz.

Tin Man is another good mini series thats like both a reimagining and a sequel.

I don't think you can do a faithful rpg set in Oz without considering that Oz is a scary place full of twisted magics, people and creatures.
 

Tonguez

Legend
I remember there was an EnWorlder many years ago (on the old site) who posted up an Oz Storyhour. It was brilliant and I loved it. Oz would be an amazing setting to adventure in, but would need a skilled GM. (I really want to see how Professor H.M. Wogglebug, T.E might be handled in D&D :))

I’ve read the Ozma Stories and though they were intended for children, as a distinctly ‘American fairy tale” Baum (who was a political activist and son of a sufferagette) builds in many reflections on 19th Century American life, and the political economic and social upheavals of the period. Theres also Baums own stage adaption which is firmly aimed at adults and directly references political figures of the era.

I also think that 1985s Return to Oz with all its nightmarish freak was a better interpretation, than the Judy Garland Classic (which I still love).

As a side note from the Nome King adopted the idea that sverfneblin live in the ‘Deep Underdark” where living rubies and emeralds bloom and when eaten overflow with delicious sparkling juices..

Its definately a rich tapestry of ideas
 


jasper

Rotten DM
Remember no one ages or dies in OZ. I just finished the collection this year. Some of it is boring. The polymorph spells are generally bad.
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
As a side note from the Nome King adopted the idea that sverfneblin live in the ‘Deep Underdark” where living rubies and emeralds bloom and when eaten overflow with delicious sparkling juices..
No, the Nomes of Ev hide jewels deep in the earth to keep mortals from getting at "their" treasures. I think you're mixing up Oz with Narnia's Silver Chair, which had the Gnomes of Bism who were enslaved by the Lady of the Green Kirtle and told Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum that "dead" gems were inferior to the live ones, which were fruits you could eat.
 


Tonguez

Legend
No, the Nomes of Ev hide jewels deep in the earth to keep mortals from getting at "their" treasures. I think you're mixing up Oz with Narnia's Silver Chair, which had the Gnomes of Bism who were enslaved by the Lady of the Green Kirtle and told Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum that "dead" gems were inferior to the live ones, which were fruits you could eat.
could be, its been a long time since I read either :)
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester
The thing about Oz is that it's not a children's story. It's a scary, violent, twisted, adult fantasy place.

I remember watching Return to Oz back in late 80s when I was a kid and that movie was freaky. It had the queen with the hallway of heads, the desert that turned everything living to dust, the freaky wheelers, crazy stuff.

Very much the opposite of the original musical, which is the most unfaithful adaptation ever made to Oz.

Tin Man is another good mini series thats like both a reimagining and a sequel.

I don't think you can do a faithful rpg set in Oz without considering that Oz is a scary place full of twisted magics, people and creatures.
No, no, it IS a children's story, the same way the stories collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales or works by Hans Christen Andersen are.

They just accept that children can handle themes that children's stories these days tend to aschew. These are stories with lessons about the darkness of the world around us, and the challenges of growing up (scary people who you can actually trust, 'friendly' and 'pretty' people who are actually perilous, etc).

Also note that Baum himself started changing characterizations over the course of the series as he realised some of it was way too dark. For example, in The Land of Oz, the Wizard sells out Ozma to Mombi, and is seen much less a harmless humbug and much more a dangerous and cruel politician out for his own good. But by Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he's fully transfigured into the harmless and friendly circusman who's caught up with Dorothy on a journey to the center of the Earth and back again into Oz, and Ozma treats him as such as well.

The Tin Woodsman, as some have pointed out above, is a similarly Disneyficated character over the course of the series. Even Ruggedo the Red, the Nome King, goes from being essentially the Satan masquerading as Santa to being a minor inconvenience by the later books.

My father has always thought the later introductions like the Woggle-Bug and the Shaggy Man of Oz were horrible horrible characters while earlier ones like Jack and Tipp/Ozma etc were much better creations. Though he is a fan of the Patchwork Girl, too. He grew up on these books and has a 1st edition collection of all the Baum ones and some of the Thompson ones and Neil ones too!
 


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