So our last post was really about making standard AD&D orcs more dangerous in various thematic ways, This is fine for keeping the spotlight on orcs for higher level play instead of moving on to bugbears or whatever, but it’s really just adding spice to the meat and potatoes humanoid slay-fest. Since my homebrew AD&D campaign has long since passed the point where low HD humanoids can present a threat to the players, and since there are a few half-orc player characters on the roster (one of the main crew, plus a couple of henchmen and secondary characters), I’ve been cooking up scenarios where they can be involved in different ways.
Not that it means making orcs noble savage friends of the forest full of of facebook-style fake native american shaman wisdom. Orcs are defined by violence, danger, mystery, opposition and otherness. Take that away and you don’t have an orc or half-orc, you just have some tough guy. Just because your orcs aren’t evil-to-the-core demonspawn doesn’t mean that their story shouldn’t be about conflict. In the real world there are plenty of long running conflicts going on where people on each side of the ethnic/religious/national divide see the other as an evil to be exterminated. Developing humanoid antagonists like the orcs can help you explore this kind of story in your game, if that’s your bag. Since violence is to orcs what mining is for dwarves, magic for elves, pies for halfings, etc…I would say that orcs should never be far from real or implied violent conflict, but in a campaign world where it’s possible for orcs to have value to the cultures that the PCs come from, an adventure can encourage different ways of managing that conflict.
So what kind of value would they have? Well, history is full of examples of a powerful civilisation exercising influence over a group which it considers less civilised, less cultured, more warlike, barbarous and violent. Sure there is conflict, but also trade and exploitation, especially incorporation into the military, perhaps as auxiliaries or irregulars. My model is ancient Rome and the Celtic and Germanic ‘barbarians’. Sure there was plenty of warfare between them but also trade, alliances, intermarriage, vassalage and the assimilation of barbarians into the Roman military, to the point where Rome relied very heavily on barbarian soldiers, and successful barbarian military leaders could hold the balance of power in the empire. In a D&D world, I can mainly see this kind of thing happening with orcs because of their similarity to humans in size, and the whole half-orc thing. Even in terms of religion, human followers of a norse-type mythos would see some things in common with orcs venerating Gruumsh’s family.
With that in mind, here are a couple of orc-related shenanigans for your players to get stuck into:
- PCs stumble into in orc lair and meet with a positive reaction from rather polite orc guards in shabby livery. They are invited to feast with the chief, who has served some time as a mercenary in human lands and was incredibly taken with human culture and now styles himself as a baron. He’s done his best to imitate it as best as he understands, but something’s always just a little off. The chief’s family and high-ranking warriors all dress in an approximation of courtly fashion,give themselves extravagant titles and use extensively formal and flowery vocabulary, peppered with glaring malapropisms. The chief fancies himself something of an intellectual and inaccurately quotes from human playwrights and philosophers. He also insists on reading out his own poetry. The savage and vicious state of rival humanoid tribes and races shall be bemoaned. He inquires as to the health and fortunes of local nobility, speaking of them as if they were distant cousins and requesting that the PCs deliver letters to them inviting them to his next grand ball. Despite this veneer of sophistication many of their manners at the feast remain typically orcish and there are certainly some around who go about this with some distaste and are itching to chop the PCs to bits just like the good old days. Nonetheless if the PCs can keep a straight face throughout the feast they can make an strong ally, particularly if they are or give the impression that they are of high social status. This tribe will eagerly buy silks, dinner sets, objets d’art and all sorts of wealth and status signifiers from the PCs. Particularly good relationships can be established if they compliment the chief on his erudition and taste, the warriors on their dashing charm and the ladies on their beauty and manners. There will be music and dancing, which will come off as a bizarre mix of human and orcish styles. The chief will make much of his sons and daughters and will try to play matchmaker between them and human PCs. For what it’s worth, they clean up pretty nice. If this notion is entertained, this tribe can become a source of hirelings and other aid. Things can get ugly quickly if the chief is mocked, disrespected or ridiculed. He can take advice in private but will not be made to look a fool in front of his subjects. Likewise if the PCs turn out to be boors or ruffians, or let slip that they are wanted by local authorities then the tribe will turn on them to take their loot and either kill them or turn them in to the law. If the PCs flash around wealth while appearing weak and of low social status, the temptation to simply attack and appropriate their cultural valuable treasure and equipment might be too much to resist.
- In a world where the use of orcish mercenaries and bodyguards is an established tradition, a human-dominated empire maintains control over its dominions with an army which has become more orcish with every generation. Having proven themselves eager and effective soldiers, orcs integrate themselves to do some degree within the wider citizenship and gain various rights under the law of the land, immigrating and settling into human cities. The success of orcish military units in the provinces have led to some orcish commanders becoming popular public figures, influential in the borderlands and in the urban power centres. The troops are so loyal to their generals that civil elites are quick to placate these warlords, fearing a military coup. Among the military nobles, mixed marriages and half-orcs are common and fashionable. In fact, the success of orcs in the military has led to a widespread trend of ‘orcish chic’ in human society. Popular among rebellious youth or those with ties to the army, this entails speaking orcish slang, swearing by orcish gods, wearing orcish hairstyles and tribal markings, horned helmets, spiky armour, jagged blades and furs, even though these kind of clothes were abandoned by most city orcs over a generation ago while they tried to integrate themselves. Traditional human elders are appalled by this appropriation of barbarism, and likewise so is the elvish population, who are both nostalgic for the past when they were seen as the ones for humans to emulate and also worried about the general anti-elf tendencies of this new subculture. On the orcish side, most orcs are increasingly annoyed at seeing their neighbourhoods and bars invaded by privileged human hipsters who caricature their traditions, pretending they ‘get’ them. What started as a harmless fad veers into dangerous territory as a group of noble youths connected to an orc-cult disappear into the undercity to take part in ultimate ‘authentic’ orcish experience, an inter-tribal gladitorial competition where a group of traditionally minded orcs and shamans intend to make sure the pretenders meet a gruesome end as sacrifices to Gruumsh. An underworld snitch tips off the PCs or their patron, and it’s up to them to find and rescue these young nobles while keeping the local orcish population sweet enough to not cause problems with the army.
- Based on the idea of Chaotic and Neutral orcs from OD&D, the Chaotic Dark Lord of the month is a powerful and charismatic fellow and has gathered the Chaotic orc tribes into a fearsome horde. The closest bastion of civilisation has recently recovered from an internal conflict and cannot stand up to an invasion on its own. The PCs are recruited as emissaries to the Neutral tribes. These tribes, being orcs, are all fierce rivals and reluctant to co-operate or see the others profit at their expense. In fact, they may push the PCs to eliminate other Neutral tribes to gain their allegiance. Otherwise they will demand treasure, weapons, magic items, hostages, territory in formerly human lands or marriage alliances with important humans. The PCs may be asked to clear out dungeon/cavern areas in tribal territory, remove dangerous monsters or tame them for the war effort. Perhaps they must prove themselves through torturous tribal initiations or feats of strength. Maybe they will demand bloody sacrifices of powerful creatures to their tribal gods in order to ensure a good omen. The PCs will have to sit and moderate war councils with different human and orcish elders. Tribes whom with which negotiations go badly may join the Chaotic side, particularly if they suffer heavy losses at the hands of PCs. If the PCs manage to recruit most of the Neutral tribes, then they will it will be sufficient to halt the advance of Chaos, giving the party a chance to go on the offensive against the BBEG. Then there’s seeing if all those deals hold up come ‘peace’-time.
That’s a wrap for Orctober 2015. Please also check out parts 1, 2 and 3 and let me know what you think in the comments, feel free to comment your own ideas and get in touch if you’d like me to write more on our humanoid friends.
Unearthed Arcana, that divisive tome which ushered in the ‘1.5e’ era for AD&D, detailed the most powerful gods of the orc pantheon, apart from Gruumsh (who had been detailed earlier in deities and Demigods). It mentions orc tribes often being divided among cult lines, with the holy symbol also being the tribal standard, etc. This doesn’t sit well with me for most of the standard orc tribes in a gameworld, as it sort of defeats the point of pantheistic worship in the first place. If there are lots of gods, each with specific portfolios that make up the rich tapestry of angry humanoid life, it’d be weird for every single tribe to be dedicated to one. But it does make a nice way to differentiate orc groups and highlight various traits and tactics. I also like the idea of orcs being deeply religious and competing for status via various warrior cults within their tribe. In my current AD&D campaign, most orc encounters will be with normal tribes, but around certain tribes will be dominated by a warrior-cult of a particular deity and will have their own particular special skills and tactics.
Here are my rules for the special orc tribes for a vanilla style AD&D world. The mechanics refer back to the Monster Manual entry. Just roll up a bunch of orcs as normal, mod from there.
The chosen of Gruumsh, the high one consider themselves the mightiest, wisest, most ruthless of orcs. At inter-tribal gatherings, their warlord and chief shaman have the highest seats and the final word. But Gruumsh does not sleep, and he is always watching. Watching for weakness, watching for worthiness. Likewise do the Evil Eye warriors regard each other most intently to impress their leaders and rivals.
Philosophy: You’re the best of the best, but it means nothing if you don’t show it. Evil Eye orcs are respected and feared everywhere, and you need the swagger and the head count to make sure it stays that way, or Gruumsh will turn his eye toward another bunch of ambitious warriors. Those that excel will take the greatest share of the spoils, the most comely concubines, and be blessed with many strong sons, and be an example to those tribes less favoured by He-Who-Never-Sleeps. Fight well, and lead the lesser ones to victory, for you are first in the eye of the great god, and the first to suffer his judgement.
Aesthetics: Evil Eye warriors like to show off their prestige with high quality armour and weapons, and maintain them well. Intimidation factor is also a priority, signalling to your enemies and rivals alike that you are not to be fucked with. Every Evil Eye worth the name wears several personal trophies over his battle gear and keeps count of their kills. Notched blades, necklaces of fingers, ears, or teeth, a bag of eyes worn around the neck, bone jewellery. Their sign is that of a great red unblinking eye. Every shaman has one eye plucked out to show their dedication to Gruumsh. Under supervisions of shamans, extensive ritual scarification and piercing is practised, serving a record of the warrior’s deeds, protective talismans, and a display of fearsomeness.
Elites: Double number of non-standard orcs encountered (i.e., leaders and assistants, the chiefs, sub-chiefs, bodyguards). These are all Evil Eye elites and subject to the Eye of God rule.
Hail to da Chief: A tribe with this many wannabe-bosses has to have a big boss indeed to keep them all in line. If encountered outside the lair there will be an additional hero figure, a leader of the expedition with 4HD, AC3 (plate mail, AC2 if with shield), +2 ‘to hit’ and weapon damage. If in lair there will be an additional warlord figure with 5-8HD, AC3 (plate mail, AC2 if with shield), +2 ‘to hit’ and weapon damage. These are subject to the Eye of God rule.
Eye of God: Aware that they must be exemplars of orcish might or feel the wrath of their god, Evil Eye elites and leaders fight with a fierce fanaticism to distinguish themselves from their rivals. To show weakness is to forfeit one’s privilege and be damned. On a natural 20 ‘to hit’, they gain an immediate additional attack. If they take damage to below 0hp, they have a 50% chance of gritting through it and coming back up to fight again on 1hp the following combat round. This does not apply to non hp damage e.g. death spells, poison.
Spellcasters: The oldest, wisest, and most powerful shamans guide the Evil Eye. They may reach the 7th level of spellcasting ability.
Taking their name and totem from the great beast broken by the bare hands of Bahgtru, Broken Bone warrior cults worship physical strength and the pinnacle of personal achievement. Intense physical training through gladitorial competition with rivals or captured beasts defines progress through the circles of this warrior cult.
Philosophy: The Broken Bone are not a society of thinkers. Might makes right. Fight and train hard enough and you’ll find that there’s no such things as a problem that can’t be crushed, smashed, or throttled.
Aesthetics: Primitive and barbaric-looking even by orc standards, Broken Bone warriors are muscular hulks. Bone trophies and jewellery are common, as are tattoos. The supremely confident beserkers among them scorn armour, relying on strength and divine favour alone to turn aside blows. Two-handed, heavy weapons are preferred.
Beserkers: All non-standard orcs have +2hp, +1 to hit and damage. Chiefs and subchiefs have +4hp, +2 to hit and damage, but suffer a 2 point penalty to AC from lack of armour.
Spellcasters: Shaman and witch doctors fight as subchiefs with the same modifications in addition to their spellcasting ability.
Additional Figures: D6 ogrillons per 50 orcs.
Shargaas favours the Death Moon tribe, and his cult preachers stealth and cunning. The Death Moon warriors only attack at night and are practised in sneaking and moving silently. Those who aspire to the inner circles of the cult must master the art of subterfuge and assassination. As a tribe, the Death Moon favour guerilla tactics and ambushes. Death Moon assassins are sometimes hired by other tribes to remove an unpopular chief or as scouts or guerilla troops.
Philosophy: Darkness is strength, and there is no greater art than the art of unseen, silent death. Avoid the light which is the joy of our enemies. Honour and glory are dangerous lies, results are what matter.
Aesthetics: Death Moon warriors favour dark, drab clothing and dark grey warpaint. They sport padded footwear and prefer smaller and lighter weapons that then typical orc band. Their banner displays the crescent moon and skull.
Ambush: All orcs in this tribe surprise on a 1-3, as bugbears.
Assassins: All non-standard orcs have the abilities of assassins equal to their HD. These orcs wear reinforced leather armour at best, and do not improve from the normal orc AC6.
Dwellers in darkness: All orcs in this tribe suffer a -2 ‘to hit’ in bright light or daylight.
Taking for their symbol the dread sword of Ilneval, the Dripping Blade are elite warriors similar to the Evil Eye. They are more organised and aggressive, however. In an orcish-dominated region, the Dripping Blade will often be at the frontiers, forgoing typical inter-tribal warfare in favour taking the fight to the enemies of the orcs. When the Dripping Blade does move against a rival tribe, it does so ruthlessly with the aim of exterminating its enemies.
Philosophy: Strength. Cunning. Discipline. These are the hallmarks of the ideal orc warrior. Dripping Blade elites are trained to fight as units and use intelligent tactics.
Aesthetics: Dripping Blade warriors sport well-maintained arms and armour. Their elites wear red colours on their armour and warpaint and their banner depicts a bloody sword.
Elites: Double the number of nonstandard orcs in the group. These are Dripping Blade elites.
Discipline: Dripping Blade elites are well-trained to work together in combat tactics and manoeuvres. They gain +1 ‘to hit’ any opponent which is already engaged in melee with a member of their tribe. All orcs in the group, whether elites or not, gain a +1 bonus on initiative rolls.
Spellcasters: Ilneval’s favoured shamans are warrior-priests and the military as well as spiritual leaders of the Dripping Blade. They wear red chainmail armour and have extra HD and accompanying fighting power equal to their cleric level (up to 5th). A high-ranking warrior priest typically leads the tribe.
The Leprous Hand tribe are feared and reviled by rival tribes and enemies of the orc alike, for the revel in the glorification of Yurtrus, god of death and disease. Though armed as other tribes, they supplement their weapons with traps of poison gas and smear their blades with disease-ridden concoctions. The flayed bodies of their victims hang from their grim victory totems.
Philosophy: By progressing through the circles of the warrior cult, you place your life in the white hands of Yurtrus and shed your fear of death and suffering itself. The weakness of your body will be purged in order to make it a vessel for spreading terror and misery to the unenlightened.
Aesthetics: The elites of the Leprous Hand practice mortification of the flesh, subject themselves to normally deadly disease, and revel in the disgust their appearance invokes in others. It is not uncommon for them to wear masks and cloaks made from the flesh of their enemies. Their banner is a white hand on black background.
Feel no pain: All non-standard orcs have +2 hp and a +1 bonus on all saving throws for every HD. They are immune to disease and fear.
Tainted weapons: If any orc in the tribe rolls a natural 20 to hit, the victim of the attack must save vs. poison or contract a random disease.
Spellcasters: Shamans wear white gloves made from human skin and wield maces. In addition they may cast animate dead and turn undead as evil clerics of equivalent level.
Extra figures: A pack of 2-8 ghouls will follow a Leprous Hand expedition. Double that number if encountered in their lair. The Leprous Hand lair will also contain 1-3 Otyughs (20% chance one will be a Neo-Otyugh) from which the shamans extract the necrotic poison for their weapons.
The Vile Rune follow Luthic, goddess of orcish females and their fertility, as well as earth, protection and healing. The Vile Rune dwell undergrounds are among the least aggressive of orcish groups, yet defend their subterranean lairs with a beserk fury. Females hold a higher status in this clan, and rise through the ranks of the cult as shamans. The Vile Rune sees this as part of its special status and does not push its form of female empowerment on other orc tribes. Just as Luthic is loyal to Gruumsh and Baghtru to Luthic, in inter-tribal matters, the Vile Rune defers to the authority of the Evil Eye tribe and may command the Broken Bone tribe into its service.
Philosophy: Respect the the life-giving power of females and the earth. The women are closer to Luthic and closer to her wise counsel. Through them, with Luthic’s favour, will come the strength that the orcish race needs to dominate its enemies. It is no shame for your mate to fight by your side. Nurture and protect the young, and the tribe will thrive and grow strong. Show no mercy to any who defile our sacred places.
Aesthetics: Vile Rune orcs prefer lighter armour and less violent imagery than their more warlike kin. They often decorate themselves with earth-based warpaint. Their sign is a Y-shaped rune, representing a cave entrance.
Furious defence: When in their lair, all the orcs in the tribe fight at +2 to hit, but take a AC penalty of 2 points.
Amazons: Females present in lair will equal 100% of males and have full fighting ability.
Spellcasters: The female shamans and witch doctors are armed with gauntlets tipped with steel claws, in imitation of their goddess (2 attacks/round, d4 damage).
Additional figures: 2d4 cave bears will be present in the lair.
“It became clear in time that undoubted Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.” (Myths Transformed, Morgoth’s Ring)
Yuck. From the beginning of the orcs in fiction, the half-orc came with them. Weirdly, men-orcs and orc-men are apparently different strains. Their origins in Middle-Earth somewhat occluded and mysterious, as is typical for orcish lore, but apparently some kind of sorcerous eugenics program. Interestingly, men first had to be corrupted to a certain level before being made to mate with orcs, it doesn’t seem like the orcs themselves had any inclination towards this before Morgoth ‘discovered’ the process.
LoTR and D&D core rulebooks both say almost nothing about female orcs’ side of things, but they differ in important respects. In our previous post, we look at the almost unique aspect of sexual threat attributed to orcs in the MM, markedly different from LoTR’s magic breeding program. It certain marks out the orcs as more sinister. Goblins and kobolds will kill you, but orcs are an existential threat to your race. They’ll assimilate and corrupt humanity, turning us into a badass multi-classable warrior race with infravision, higher STR and CON but a pathetic clerical level limit and no arcane magic. Sounds like there might be a few upsides? Damn right, half-orcs are awesome, and fun to play, even if the text itself appears to want to beat you up for wanting to play one sometimes, saddling you with harsh ability maximum in WIS (so cleric multis would usually be pretty weak), the only demi-human to have limited levels in thief and unlimited in assassin. Clearly there was some pressure to embrace your evil heritage and dedicate yourself to promoting the ‘antithesis of weal’ by being a Fighter/Assassin. There’s also the implication that all your tendencies to bad behaviour came from your orcish genes, and your good behaviour from your human parent.
My first ever D&D character was a half-orc, and while I can fantasise about rolling up the perfect fighter/cleric/assassin and going maximum half-orc on the world, it was mainly because I wanted to be able to use miniatures from my Warhammer Fantasy Battle Orc and Goblin army.
I didn’t know much about how the rules worked but made a fighter/thief so he could use ALL THE WEAPONS and CLIMB ALL THE WALLS! Half-orcs get really low starting age ranges and he ended up being 15 or 16 yrs old, just a little older than myself in real life. This was exciting, but adolescent me thought he seemed a little immature, so I made up a background for him where he was the adopted son of my half-elf druid (who was around 4o years old with 15 WIS so seemed plenty mature to me). My older self can ponder the interesting roleplaying possibilities given this kind of relationship between these two mixed race characters, one from each side of half-human possibility, but in the end it may be a good thing I didn’t invest too much in it, as Morglum the half-orc met an untimely death by way of dragon-fire when he was still in his teens, somewhere around the 5th level. Still, in his short life, I managed to squeeze some nice RP juice out of him, just by way of his age, race and choice of associates. A youngster raised in the druidic religion away from his original parents by a mixed race foster parent, Morglum was naive, good natured and believed in balance. The violence and sneakiness of his classes were part of nature, but he didn’t ‘get’ a lot of the racial conflict in D&D. Our early level adventuring took us through plenty of humanoid areas, and when about to meet orcs for the first times in his life, Morglum regretted that he had to end up killing a lot of them to safeguard his friends, and that so few of them were willing to listen to reason (he got burned early on by desperate humanoids trying to exploit his naivety). Still where orcs where concerned I had him negotiate and communicate whenever possible, including attempting to temporarily recruit defeated orcs (especially after our men-at-arms all died). A couple of times his ability to read and speak orcish turned up handy information, and he was would discourage unncessary slaughter of humanoids in favour of focusing on the main objective. This led to a fair few conflicts with the group’s main warrior, an elven ranger with exceptional strength, a damage bonus vs humanoids, and an itchy sword hand every time he had a chance to use it. Having a half-orc in the party definitely had a meaningful impact on gameplay, and although Morglum was never destined for name-level greatness, I’ve had a penchant for playing half-orcs ever since.
Before Drizzt and playable drow, the half-orc would be my pick for the badass anti-hero kind of character, the self-reliant type who kicks-ass while working through his or her often literally teenage angst. Strong, tough, cunning, distrusted by communities or humans and orcs alike, it seems like they’re a perfect fit for the gritty adventuring life, which would provide them with the riches, comradeship, validation and power that they couldn’t get through normal channels. They mature quickly and have a short lifespan, no wonder the live-fast die-young dungeon raiding lifestyle would appeal. They’re the intersection between monster and man, the character that can lift the veil over the all-too-convenient tidy set up of good playable pretty races versus bad ugly monsters and mess things around. Plenty of murderhobos of other races have, at some point in their career, realised that there might not be much to separate them in behaviour from the humanoids in the dungeon. The half-orc knows this right from the start.
While they share some bad-boy rebel appeal with the drow, half-orcs are less glamorous. Orcs have a much gritter, barbaric, even working-class vibe to them that’s at odds with the suave dark elves. Half-orcs even stir things up in the real world. Half-orcs (and their signature assassin class) were omitted from 2nd Edition AD&D in an effort to purge the game of controversial content. They were eventually restored in the Complete Book of Humanoids supplement, and regained their rightful place in the core race set in 3e. Sadly, the 3e half-orc was something like a hulk-like bruiser with an INT penalty as well as the CHA, similar in appearance to the WoW orc but a very poor choice in 3e character building system, especially since the lack of INT meant they had less skill points for thief or assassin- like roles. I always imagined them as more lean and wiry. Certainly stronger than your average human but not the juiced-up ‘roid monster a lot of newer half-orc character art puts forward. In 4th and 5th editions, they are better choices, presented as natural beserkers, with their orcish blood acting as a kind of curse egging them on to violent rages. 5e fluff does take a more nuanced and realistic approach to human-orc relations along the lines of my suggestion in the last post.
I’ll stick with my AD&D style half-orc for my old school games, though some good race-as-class variants have been offered up for B/X in the OSR blogosphere, with some emphasising the sneaky side of the race and other pushing the more modern beserker take. How do people feel about the half-orc out there? Are there still those out there think it’s inappropriate? For you 5e players, how does the modern iteration fare in play?
Here’s my hand at an ‘Orctober’ series, as we spend the rest of the month up close and personal with the problematic humanoid everyone loves to hate.
Thanks to Mike Monaco for providing this excellent and amusing summary of generic fantasy orcs from UK wargame Hordes of the Things:
Although the dictionary definition of orc is merely “monster,” modern authors universally follow the lead of Tolkien in using the term as a synonym for a large goblin. These have not had a fair press. They are fanatically brave in spite of being weaker and less practiced than most other humanoids, and must be kind to animals, since they train them so well. It is interesting that Tolkien’s characters describe them in terms very similar to those used by medieval chroniclers to describe Mongols, who in our day are considered a nice friendly people of slightly eccentric lifestyle. We might instead think of such goblins as a fantasy counterpart of the apocryphal northerner: clannish, rough spoken, given to imbibing of strong but peculiar liquor, keeping analogues of whippets and pidgeons, prone to mob violence at away fixtures and perhaps too easily influenced by radical politicians of other races. –Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker & Richard Bodley Scott, Hordes of the things
They’re Tolkienesque fantasty cliche, over-used and under-utilised, but I love orcs. The be-tusked nemesis of the fledgeling adventurer. The primitive, the bestial, the savage, the demonic. Even as a child reading The Lord of the Rings I always found them more fascinating than the elves and dwarves and hobbits. Maybe it was that bad-boy, underdog appeal. Maybe it was the fact that they were so undeveloped that made them so much more mysterious and compelling. I can’t have been the only one that wanted to know more about what was going on with Shagrat and Gorbag than Elrond and Galadriel, can I? In this series I’m going to try and get to grips with both the great appeal of orcs to me personally, their place in Dungeons and Dragons, and various ideas on how to expand their use in the game.
Us and Them
In D&D, one of the many divisions of the game is between humans and demi-humans on one hand, and humanoids (sometimes ‘goblinoids’ or ‘giant class’) on the other. Demi-humans included elves, dwarves, halfings and gnomes, generally any race that could be selected by player characters. Humanoids were orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, bugbears, and ogres. In D&D’s wargaming roots, these represented the different troop types available on each side (Light vs Darkness, Good vs Evil, Law vs Chaos and what have you). Although player characters may be of any alignment whatever their chosen race, the humanoids are unanimously bad guys, being Chaotic in Basic D&D and various flavours of Evil in AD&D. Being unplayable, unclassed and more tightly bound to antagonistic alignments, the orcs and related humanoids are the quintessential other – they walk, talk and resemble us, but but are in an exclusive and antagonistic group in opposition to ‘us’, the playable humans and demi-humans. On top of that, these humanoid antagonists tend to be low-tech, tribal, shamanistic cultures, which much made of their ugliness, aggression, lack of individuality, intelligence or sophistication, lack of art and culture, etc. It doesn’t take much thought to see the unfortunate implications of this presentation, particularly if one is familiar of colonial depictions of indigenous peoples. If we take the oft-made compsarison of D&D to the Old West, the orcs are the indians. The orc is Grendel. In real-life warfare and imperialism, deliberate dehumanisation of the enemy in order to justify their killing or subjugation is a widespread and longstanding practice that continues to this day. The orc is the incarnation of this deception given life in the game world. The perfect enemy, the bane of civilisation that exists to be negated. This is all fine for some, and I get why. Monolithic evil cannon-fodder orc types allow the PCs to engage large groups of armed humanoid foes without becoming mass slaughterers of their own kind. The presentation of an exaggeratedly evil empire is easier to swallow if their forces are monstrous rather than human. I don’t fall into this camp personally though, and I think it can be rewarding to run humanoids in a way that explores, rather than ignores, their problematic implications.
A lot of what I’m going to say about orcs can also apply to the other races, but I’m going to focus on the orcs for a couple of reasons. One, they’re the iconic humanoid. Whenever you see D&D or analogous game referenced in movies and tv, for example, if a humanoid race is mentioned, it’s typically the orcs. In D&D inspired fantasy product including literature, videogames, tabletop wargames and suchlike, orcs often feature in one way or another, even though the treatment of them varies. Secondly, while Tolkien’s orcs are a race of corrupted elves, and this legacy persists to some small extent in D&D, I would say that in the game, orcs are actually the humanoid version of the standard human. When you square up the PC races against humanoids of roughly equivalent size and ability, you have kobolds as evil gnomes, goblins against dwarves, the Uruk-Hai-esque hobgoblin up against the elves, and the orc staring us humans right in the face. Orcs are human sized and have one hit die. They’re the ‘baseline’ humanoid from which the others deviate from. Most humanoid races and cultures are in their own way distortions of the human baseline, but orcs somehow stands on the same plane, the humanoid-equivalent in the mirror world of the savage humanoids.
Orcs and Humans
So let’s take a look and mankind-orc relations in early D&D. In the original version of the rules (the three little brown books, specifically Men & Magic) orcs are listed under both the Neutral and Chaotic alignment categories (interestingly, so are Ogres and Giants. Tough luck, goblins, hobgoblins and gnolls. You’re all still Chaotic only).
This gives them the same moral range as elves and dwarves, and plenty of leeway to make common cause with PC races. It also helps distinguish the Orcs from the mechanically similar goblins and hobgoblins. Although I have a hard time imagining a band of orcs hanging out with dryad and pixie friends. Alignment in OD&D was not so much an indicator of personality types as an allegiance to a particular side in a cosmic struggle of Law vs Chaos. Still, since the forces of Chaos boast the Evil High Priest and the undead, demons, etc, it’s a pretty clear equivalence of Law with Good and Chaos with Evil. Orcs in this game are far from nice guys, but capable of living in harmony with the rest of the world. The original rules didn’t forbid monster races as player characters, but these groupings were more used to see what kind of allies, henchmen and mounts an adventurer of a particular alignment could have. Thus, a neutral adventurer could ride a dragon and have a mixed entourage with an Elf and an Orc fighting side by side against goblins and ghouls. Or what have you. Wayne R’s fantastic blog explores this idea a little more. It is also of note that in their monster entry orcs are viciously antagonistic towards other tribes of their own species, but commonly associate with other creatures, including dragons, trolls, ogres as well as Fighters and Magic Users (I guess that these Fighters and Magic users are human, though it’s not explicit). They’re also into wagon trains. With regards to the orc-human relationship, note that men can be encountered as ‘monsters’, for example, as bandits or beserkers, and differ little from orc encounters in this regard, save for their classed leaders and lack of infravision. B/X D&D clarified the Law vs Chaos alignment system, making it a more explicit good-evil divide and sadly removing a lot of ambiguity regarding variable creature alignments, shunting the monstrous humanoids all firmly in the ‘C’ category.
The idea of non-evil orcs even has a precedent in Tolkien based on a sentence in The Silmarillion regarding the “War of the Last Alliance”:
‘All living things were divided in that day, and some of every kind, even of beasts and birds, were found in either host, save the Elves only. They alone were undivided and followed Gil-galad.’
This and perhaps the existence of orcs and goblins living an isolated, tribal existence without any direct control from a Dark Lord (Melkor, Sauron, Saruman, etc), is perhaps another reason why orcs also got a pass into the Neutral column.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons put orcs (and other organised humanoids like goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins) into the Lawful Evil camp. The Monster Manual entry includes a lot of fussing about the details of their lair and force composition. Perhaps to shore up their place in the new alignment paradigm, their generally unpleasant nature is detailed and strongly emphasised:
Parts of this entry feel like they were written by a particularly catty personal stylist. Despite ramping up the evil (they are now more explicitly bullies and slavers) and ragging on their particularly disgusting appearance, right down to their choice of colour scheme (and in all fairness, the pig face period is one of the derpiest visual representations of the race), orcs remain one of the more fleshed out and sophisticated humanoid races. They still love caravan journeys, and are fiercely loyal to their tribe and leaders, gaining bonuses when their standard is present. A hatred of elves is introduced, which has been noted to not make a whole lot of sense, given that the races have few overlapping territories or resources to fight over. I’d put it down to an upping of the Tolkien element (funnily enough, in the time of balrog to balors and hobbits to halflings, ents to treants etc). The elves also went through an alignment shift from Lawful leaning to Chaotic Good, so perhaps it made sense to set them against the main Lawful Evil humanoid. The MM entry also details one of the trickier bits of the orcish question, their women and children. Gaming forums abound with players wrestling with the moral dilemma of what to do with orc babies after massacring the fighting males. How this is approached will say a lot about any campaign’s tone regarding humanoids and alignment. The entry for orc is Lawful Evil, for groups of 30-300 plus addition leaders, females and young. Does the alignment dictate their dominant group culture? Allegiance to a specific cause? Or is every orc baby born with a heart of authoritarian cruelty?
The game changer here here is the introduction of half-orcs. The MM passage is full of weirdness, They’ll breed with anything? Except for elves. So…orc-dragons, orc-dwarves, orc-lizardmen, or what? It piles on the unfortunate implications of orcs by making them into rape monsters, with some uncomfortable echoes of Lovecraftians fear of miscegnation and racial deterioration. The orc-goblins and -hobgoblins, being basically orcs, are completely pointless (as if PCs would notice? They’re in the Caves of Chaos to loot them, not carrying out an anthropological study) and never mentioned again except for one in module S4, whose orcish parentage is noted, to absolutely no mechanical or story disctinction because WTF. Only elves in their ubermenschian pure sparkly +1 with swords and bows awesomeness are immune to orcish contamination. There are echoes of Tolkien again here, although IIRC LoTR half-orcs were the result of magical interference rather than sexual compatibility. Then again, if elves and humans can produce viable offspring, and LoTR orcs are corrupted elves, it makes sense. But D&D orcs and elves are not connected in that way…or are they? It would certainly make more sense of why orcs make such an effort to target them. Orcs, humans and elves exist in a strange relationship where both orcs and elves can breed with humans but not with each other. Half-orc and half-elf pairing? Maybe they cancel each other out and make normal humans. A setting that plays this straight implies to me some kind of dark secret tying together the origins of those three races. Certainly, one can make more out of it than the male adventurer who hopes to win the favour of the hot elf chick and the female adventurer who fears violation at the hands of the nasty orc. A quick google image search for ‘sexy orc’ confirms that both ladies and gentleman are getting down with this.
Since orcs and humans can interbreed and produce viable offspring, this adds a whole new dimension to human-orc relations in the campaign world. For one, it brings them closer to us humans but it also adds an extra dimension to politicking in-game, if that’s your thing. In Borderlands-type situations where humans and orcs co-exist in an uneasy cold-but-periodically-warming-up war, there exists the potential for marriage alliances as a solution to these tensions. This fits in well with D&D’s dark ages default setting, and it is, I think, not unreasonable for a community of humans out in the wildlands to forge alliances with orcs in this manner, perhaps with the children of chieftains. Life in the monster-haunted lands is hard enough as it is, and hard pressed orc and human communities might see that they have a lot to offer each other. Adventurers in a Keep on the Borderlands type of scenario might tackle it differently if one of the orc cheiftains has important family members in the human stronghold, trades with humans for commodities, perhaps lending them his tribes services as caravan guards, miners, etc.
So the transition from Original to Advanced D&D has both taken orcs further away from humankind in some aspects, but also brought them together in other important ways. Part 2 in the series will examine the playable incarnation of this, AD&D’s half-orc. Part 3 develops orc tribes in the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, and in part 4 I put forward a few outside the box ideas for using orcs in your games.
Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t my first roleplaying game. My introduction to RPG actually came from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain first of the Fighting Fantasy books, a choose-your own-adventure-style series. This book, discovered lumped in with random titles on a year 5 classroom shelf, had many elements of old school D&D play. Underground exploration, funhouse-style assortment of monsters, mazes, magic items, sudden death, grim humour, etc. all featured. I was hooked and hunted around libraries and second hand shops for more titles and ended up with an impressive, but no means incomplete collection. The series are mostly fantasy-based, with you playing an adventuring fighter in the ‘campaign world’ of Titan, but there were plenty of titles with different kinds of protagonist (wizard, thief, spy, assassin, samurai, assassin, superhero) different settings, including sci-fi, post-apocalypse and alternative fantasy world. As much fun as I had with these, their potential exploded when I got my hands on two books gathering dust on a shelf in a used furniture shop. These were The Riddling Reaver, an RPG adventure module to be played with a GM running the scenarios for a group of players, and Out of the Pit, a ‘monster manual’ compendium of many of the creatures found in the books and quite a few more powerful ones clearly intended for group play. The latter included maps of two of Titan’s continents.
These two books together spring-boarded my first fantasy RPG campaign. Initially, it was very simple. FF uses a d6 based system with just three stats. Skill (used in combat and feats of strength or dexterity), Stamina (hit points) and Luck (effectively used in situations that would warrant a saving throw in D&D). This simplicity gave me an unparalleled ability to spin adventures on the fly that I miss sometimes when playing more complex games. At the same time the limitations of the system became clear in the lack of character variety and progression. Many of the monsters were woefully weak, the 2d6 range used for combat and skill tests meant that any adjustment of more than 2 was either crippling or overpowered.
Shortly after I started running this game I was inducted as a player into AD&D and began to introduce greater complexity into my FF campaign, both borrowed from D&D and from the various single player books that contained rules variants or special characters, monsters and equipment. My friends’ gang of leather-armoured sword swingers expanded to include wizards, samurai, rangers, paladins, clerics, thieves, assassins, elves, dwarves, lizardmen, death knights, barbarians, vampires, chaos warriors etc. I built a feat system, made spells, new rules from armour and weapon variants, all bolted on to the FF chassis. Once I managed to get my hands on some 1e AD&D books from ebay, I left this homebrew system behind but I still regard it as invaluable experience in DMing, and because of it I still see a lot of merit in rules-light, easily moddable game systems. And a lot of appreciation for the Brit-fantasy weirdness and atmosphere of the Titan game world. The early campaign also taught me that, even in a system with relatively little to distinguish characters mechanically, imaginative players will find a way to make them unique, to the point where I still remember them this day.
I’d still recommend the FF series for old school D&D players looking to mine some inspiration for their locales, monsters, and items. Here are some of my favourites from early in the series, plus some D&D-able content I converted from them for use in more grown-up elfgames.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: The daddy and probably the most generic of the lot. Classic dungeon crawl with an interesting amoral hero who invades the titular warlock’s lair with the intention of claiming his treasure, and can end with the hero claiming the magical power of the warlock as his own and ruling the dungeon as his successor. Combat is on the easy side (there’s an easy to find powerful magic sword and even the dragon can go down in 6 hits) but the location is good funhouse fare with varied monsters and traps.
D&D-able: Firetop Mountain is a good setting to adapt to a wizard lair a la White Plume Mountain. Here’s an encounter/item I like to use in my games.
The Eye of the Cyclops
A fist-size ruby that pulses with an eerie red light, this powerful gem is fixed in the face of the Iron Cyclops, a unique Iron Golem. The Iron Cyclops has no gas atteck, but instead projects a 30 foot range, 90 degree wide arc cone of anti-magic from its eye. This will prevent spellcasting and negate the properties of magic items in the area of effect, including weapons and armour. If the golem is defeated, the gem may be taken and used by other creatures. As a magic item, The Eye of the Cyclops may be used to detect magic 15′ at will. Its anti-magic cone may be activated at will for 5 rounds, once per day.
Citadel of Chaos: This and Riddling Reaver contain a complete magic system if you want to play group FF with a wizard class. Riddling Reaver balances the wizard with other classes by penalising the spellcaster’s SKILL and STAMINA.
D&D-able: Not much in the spell-list is useful for D&D, though some of the weirder monsters might appeal to some. My main take from this was the name of the villain, Balthus Dire, which I stole for use as my go-to moniker for my magic user characters. If you really want to freak out your players with silly/dangerous monsters, I recommend the Wheelies.
No Appearing: 2-5, AC: 6, MV: 16″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Special: spin and throw 2 daggers per round at +2 to hit, Average Intelligence, Medium Size, Chaotic Evil. Each carries a brace of 6 throwing daggers with a spare for melee. These can come from any bizarro plane, but something about their aspect suggests corrupted Modron to me.
The Forest of Doom: Forest-crawl (duh) and one of the more non-linear of the books. Overall not one of the best but has a singularly inspiring way to fail the game by being transformed into the demon overlord of a fungus farm.
The Crown of the Taskmaster
A cave leads to an small network of underground caves where large mushrooms are cultivated by mute humanoid clones. The mushroom growers quickly fall in combat, but they are guarded by patrols of fighting clones (as zombies). In the last cave is a throne where dwells a fire demon (basically a Balor, down to flaming whip and sword etc) which wears a golden crown. Once the demon is defeated, should the crown be donned by any mortal, he or she will be transformed into a fire demon/Balor and gain telepathic command of the clone walkers and warriors. The crown wearer is effectively removed from play, as it will desire only to maintain it’s mushroom farm on the prime material, the produce of which is considered a delicacy by a notable Demon Lord. The new demon will fight its former comrades to drive them from the farm, but is bound to its duty and will not pursue them outside the cave complex.
City of Thieves: Easily one of the best. Port Blacksand as a location is one of the gems of the series, and this adventure is chock full of interesting urban encounters in this chaotic and corrupt wretched hive of scum and villainy.
D&D-able: Totally. This one really deserves to be read through and mined for city adventure ideas. Confidence tricks, corruption, danger and just plain strangeness lurk round every corner. Hassle your players with corrupt guards, some of which are sarcastic trolls. Practise home invasion and encounter depressed Ogres, a wrecked house with squabbling hags dressed as little girls. Get some embarrassingly tasteless but magically protective tattoos. Present your players with a glass ball filled with swirling gas. Gas in D&D is generally feared as poisonous, but smash this thing on the ground and find that it dissipates harmlessly to reveal a useful magic item.
The Serpent Queen
In a sumptuous house, concealed behind silk curtains, dwells the Serpent Queen, a beautiful young woman with the head of a snake. The overlord of the city keeps her maintained in luxury and often sends her lavish gifts. It is said that he will reward handsomely anyone who can find a way to restore her to fully human form. If disturbed, she will defend herself with a deadly poison bite. I would make her a rogue Yuan-Ti abomination who never held true human form, but nonetheless holds onto hope that she can achieve one.
Deathtrap Dungeon: Baron Sukumvit of Fang creates this megadungeon as a sadistic contest to promote his dinky town, where the winner who beats the dungeon by collecting a series of gems and stepping out alive wins a fantastic cash prize. Straight-up dungeon crawl with some interesting encounters, especially from the Baron’s agents, who can cripple or empower your character depending on choices you make. One of the more gruesome and brutal entries in the series.
D&D-able. The dungeon and encounters a ok but what I would take from this is the setting. Want a contrived funhouse megadungeon? Set up the Baron’s contest in your campaign world. You can make it for competing teams if player co-operation is a concern or keep it for one winner for a brutal one-off adventure that would see the players team up for survival while awaiting the best opportunity to dispose of their rivals. I would actually say that the silliest thing about the dungeon is how it is treated as some kind of gladistorial entertainment when the crowd in the arena at the end has no way to see what’s going on. Fix some kind of giant scrying device or spell for the poor punters so that they can have some fun watching the carnage and derring-do.
Island of the Lizard King: Combat-heavy jungle adventure with some really tough (but cool) antagonists and a compelling story. The island works well as a D&D setting, possibly fusing its elements with TSR module I2 for ultimate Royal Lizardy goodness.
D&D-able: The whole adventure would work well for a D&D party, but something more unique to be taken from the module is the Gonchong, a strange spider-like head parasite that both dominates and bestows great power on its host, in this case the titular Lizard King. I also take cues from this book when fleshing out Lizard Men tribes in D&D, boosting them with mutants, two-headed types, Styracosaurus riders.
AC: 5, MV: 6″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Small Size, Genius Intelligence, Lawful Evil, Special Defenses: +1 or better weapon to hit, 25% magic resistance, Special attacks: +2 to hit as it leaps onto a humanoid’s head. Upon a successful hit against an opponent, the Gonchong will implant itself onto the creatures head and make it its host. If the opponent wears a helm or protective headgear, the Gongchong must make another successful attack the next round to dislodge the headgear and implant itself. The host of a Gongchong loses his or her free will but gains the following benefits: strength 18.00, immunity to non-magical weapons, bonus hit points equal to the parasite’s hit points, 25% magic resistance, immunity to disease. Psionic or mind affecting attacks affect the parasite rather than the host. The Gongchong is cruel, domineering and paranoid, and will use its host to gather guards and slaves and establish a power base.
There are some other monsters/items/encounters that have made it from these books to my D&D campaigns, but that’s to be continued in a future post.
Just back from a trip to Central Asia, which has provided some nice writing fodder, although not so much good for D&D, except the following:
Every time I go hiking, it’s a reminder that I really need to get tougher on encumbrance, rationing and fatigue rules to make trekking through the desert/mountains/badlands feel more dangerous and exciting than a stroll through the meadow or journey through the relatively resource-rich woodlands.
Scaling windy sand dunes is really fucked up and confusing and sand is flying in your eyes all the time and it would make for a frantic, tense combat encounter, especially against native monsters unimpeded by the environment.
Also I found this:
I don’t use minis but if I did, this would make it to the table and awe my hapless players with its authentic style and realistic walk.