MOOOOORTAL KOMBAT!

I hope everyone had a nice time over the holiday season. I for one certainly did, and although 2016 has been a bit of a shaky start for yours truly, I had a good time with my parents and siblings on Xmas. A personal holiday tradition in my family house are games of Mortal Kombat with my younger brother, and I’m pleased to say that despite only playing once a year, my muscle memory remains solid enough to reliably kick his arse. It helps that the series remains pretty consistent in gameplay. As a callow youth I was a poster boy for the satanic panic, and naturally Mortal Kombat was my fighting game of choice. I played the hell out of MK2, 3, and Trilogy and later MK: Deception on my console and after leaving the nest I got to play some of the latter instalments with my younger sibling. Although I haven’t owned a console for years now, I still look forward to my annual tournament but sadly 2015 brought no joy on that front, the family had sold the old console and its complement of games. Still, ’twas the season and I had MK on the mind, and it occurred to me that there’s more than one way to get that fix.

Mortal Kombat’s rather convoluted backstory seems to have a lot of D&D DNA in it. There are humanoids, elementals, planes of Order and Chaos, sorcerers, clerics, undead, fantastic worlds, dungeons and so on. Throw in some Big Trouble in Little China-style cod-Orientalist mythology and you have Mortal Kombat. There are a whole of  D&D-able elements from the series, for the purposes of this post I’m going to tackle my favourite monsters from the games.

I for one, can see a lot of potential in replacing the standard goblinoid army guys with these badasses:

The Tarkatans, represented in-game by playable character Baraka, are the shock troops of the Shao Kahn’s, the setting’s Evil Overlord. Distinguishing them from hosts of pointy-eared-fanged-ugly humanoid type are the retractable blades of bone that grow from their forearms. More alien and savage than the halberd-hefting hobgoblin, they would make for nasty beserker-type mooks. I can see them being fast, handy, and good at parrying and blocking with their bony growths on their arms that surround the main blades. Under a sophisticated leader, I can see them being trained in the use of crossbows or javelins before closing to melee.

Tarkartan –  HD:2, AC:6, 2 attacks/round, d8 damage.

Elites/leaders –  HD:4, AC:4, 2 attacks/round, d10 damage.

I could even see them as player characters for mercenary/fighter types. I’d model them with the same ability adjustments and level limits as half-orc fighters, but with the ability to deploy their blades as ‘natural’ longsword attacks. To counter this advantage, they would not be able to develop proficiency or specialisation in any artificial weapons, putting them behind human warriors once magical weapons are more desirable.

I’m also down with assassin class human/tarkartan hybrids a la Mileena, to serve as infiltrators and leaders. No bone swords but better class options and full weapon proficiencies.

milly

The games don’t exactly give much in the way of background depth from the tarkartans, except that they apparently have their origins as human/demon hybrids. In one cutscene a character hurls a bottle of tarkartan scent on her nemesis, whose tarkartan bodyguards proceed to turn on and eviscerate, believing her to be a ‘rival male’. I can imagine tarkartans being fiercely bestial, aggressive and competitive in their natural element, sharpening their bone swords and keeping one eye on their uppity underlings and the other watching their boss for signs of weakness.

Goro and his ilk, the hulking, four-armed shokan race, are also a good candidate for higher HD, ogre-type antagonists.

goro

Just to really emphasise their gimmick and distinguish them from ogres, I’ve give them 4 attacks per round, d6 fist damage from each. Their multiple limbs would give them a huge grappling advantage and allow for some weird combat manoevres, and even in D&D’s abstract system, I’d give them something similar to the bear-hug attacks, where if all four attacks hit, a man-size or smaller opponent is grappled and lifted by one pair of arms and suffers an automatic 2d6 damage pounding per round from the other pair of arms unless they can successfully escape with a bend bars check or are freed by outside assistance. Shokan rarely use weapons, but some employ scythe-like daggers or grippable claw blades, known as ‘dragon fangs’. These add +1 to hit and damage but disable their grapple attacks. Ceremonial guards may carry great halberds, with which they are limited to a single attack per round but with a +4 damage bonus due to strength. Shokan nobility have scaly growths upon their backs and claim descent from dragons. These fearsome warriors have a limited ability to throw fire from their hands, as well as +4 on saves versus fire-based attacks. Other, lower-class shokan warriors have been sighted with a tiger-striped, feline aspect to them. Female shokan are typically smaller in stature than their male counterparts, of equal fighting ability but less brute strength (d4 damage dice for unarmed attacks, d6 for champions)

sheevathrone

Shokan  –  HD:4+4, AC:5, 4 attacks/round, d6 damage, special: grapple.

Elite  –  HD:6+6, AC:4, 4 attacks/round, d6 damage, special: grapple, at-will burning hands 6th lvl spell-like ability.

Champion  –  HD:8+8, AC:3, 4 attacks/round, d8 damage, special: grapple, at-will burning hands 8th lvl spell-like ability.

Shokan appear to have a more sophisticated culture than the tarkartans and are at least as intelligent as humans, although I think their natural abilities make them too overpowered to be PC candidates.

Also, this picture is good enough reason for me to mount them on tyrannosaurs for added awesome.

MK3 introduced Motaro the centaurian, in my memory the most difficult boss in the entire series. I lost game after game to this guy, stuck on the penultimate rung of the ladder before big boss Shao Kahn, getting my ass-kicked over and over again by this demonic centaur on steroids.

I like centaur-monsters, but standard centaurs are not very scary as an antagonists. MK didn’t give the centaurians much attention, but Motaro’s plethora of powers and great strength makes his people good candidates for D&D monsters. Their skin has a special magic resistance that deflects magic bolts, rays and energy blasts (magic missile, cone of cold, lightning bolts, fireballs etc), with a 30% chance of reflecting back towards the caster. Centaurians also can use the following spell like abilities once per round: dimension door, magic missile (a single missile, fired from the tip of the tail).

Centaurian – HD:6+6 AC:4, 1 frontal attack for d10 damage or standard weapon damage +4, rear kick for 2d8 damage, tail whip for d6 damage if missle not fired. Special abilities spell deflection, spell-like abilities.

I can see centaurians as being threats to even high-level parties due to their great mobility, special abilities. They’re difficult to deal with at range and their dimension door ability, high speed, and ability to attack from the front and rear make them very hard to out-manoeuvre.

As fun as it might be to set a campaign in MK’s Outworld, I think that I would use these races on a lesser scale. Maybe feature them in a dungeon on an island, under the command of a soul-stealing, shape-shifting sorcerer. Or have them appear as the result of a monster summoning spell, bound to serve as warriors in the campaign world through ancient pacts, similar to Elric of Melibone’s kelmain or vulture lions. Perhaps a cursed artefact opens a portal to Outworld that allows for the invasion of Shao Kahn and his shock troops. A mixed group of these three types, with their multiple attacks and unconventional special abilities, would be a force to be reckoned with. I might not have the hardware to run any of the newer Mortal Kombat games, but it won’t be long before I see a shokan battle at the table.

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…the visages of evil baboons or perhaps mandrills

The ‘D’ section of AD&D’s Monster Manual is all killer, no filler, and easily the most deadly, dreaded, and damned dangerous alphabetical group in the whole game (ok, so maybe the Lawful Good dolphins aren’t so great?). Fitting, considering the name of the game, and also that the alphabetically appropriate Demogorgon head the demons. Demogorgon is large and in charge, a nasty piece work with 200 HP (I wonder if this ever annoys Asmodeus, who has 1HP less than his demonic counterpart). Despite his intimidating appearance, he’s no beatstick. His heads have combined and individual mind control powers that have a good chance of dominating anyone who gets close enough to determine whether they are more baboon or mandrill-like. His spell-like abilities are versatile and powerful and he uses them with supra-genius intelligence. And if it comes to fisticuffs or the tails-and-tentacle equivalent, he strikes with rotting disease and energy drain.

Welcome to the 'D-section', dumbshits.

Welcome to the ‘D-section’, dumbshits.

Drawing inspiration from the 1e MM entry, I pulled put the following elements to base cults and superstitions around –

Rule through personal power (how he retains his title, by being the strongest and cleverest of demons)

Duality (two heads, forked tail)

Mind control and insanity (head powers and spell-like abilities to charm, hypnotize, stun, feeblemind, illusion)

Disease (unique rot power in his attacks, energy drain)

Combination/corruption of form (being a chimera of animal parts)

Control of cold-blooded things, reptiles.

demog1

D-man’s first appearance in Eldritch Wizardry

 

Before the dawn of civilisation, men recognised and encountered Demogorgon every day. The Prince of Demons stalked the shadows of the dense jungle with watching eyes and bared teeth. He lurked under impassable sea with poisoned spine and grasping tentacle. He slithered in the pitch black depths of the deep caverns, brewing venom and disease. Even in the heart of man, Demogorgon has a dwelling place, and from there he urges man’s darker primaeval instincts, encouraging him turn on his fellows and seek power through violence and exploitation.

Man encountered Demogorgon at the fringes of his world, and in his foolish pride to define all that he found in the world, named Demogorgon, the first demon. But the act of naming only bound them closer together. It infuriates Demogorgon to hear a human speak his name. There are many humans and similar on many worlds, and Demogorgon is very, very angry.

Demogorgon hates the civilised humanoid races in general, and humanity in particular. He despises them for their pride, hope and ambition, and delights in their terror, helplessness and pain. He scorns the worship of humanoids, but in rare times has been known to grant boons to supplicants and encourage their worship for a time before turning against them. There are many whispered legends of of heretic clerics who abandoned the gods of their peoples and turned, in their selfishness, to the worship of Demogorgon to increase their personal power. Yet those with knowledge of the nature of demons, be they tribal witch-doctors or learned sages, that Demogorgon despises worship from humanlike beings, has nothing but contempt for his clerics, and grants his dark miracles for a time, only to punish the offending priest once the wretch becomes secure in his power.

demogrim

In some arcane demonological treatises, Demogorgon is referred to as The Child, and given a female pronoun. In the annotated grimoire Art of the Infernal Intelligencier, Theravad Sthsjan, Illuminate of the 9th Circle and personal diviner to the Tyrant of Thrask, describes his conversations with the angelic girl-child Demogorgon, who he conjured within a special pentacle. From these conversations Theravad gleaned much forbidden knowledge that was used to the advantage of Thrask, and moreover his own personal power, including words of power to turn the minds of political dissidents and to command the vicious wyverns of the mountains to join the Tyrant’s army. Theravad lived many years past the normal human lifespan to see Thrask sacked and burned by his many foes who joined forces against his dark magics, yet his body could not be found among the ruins of the once-great city-state.

Metzner's Immortals Demogorgon is hardcore powerful, but also more intriguing.

Metzner’s Immortals Demogorgon is hardcore powerful, but also more intriguing.

 

Occult texts which recognise Demogorgon male and female aspect typically present her as hermaphroditic, emphasising the dualistic nature of the entity. Incorporating the powers of both sexes, they speculate that Demogorgon spawns a terrible brood of monsters from her lair in the Abyss.

Demogorgon favours twins. In some communities, one of a pair of newborn twins will be put to death for fear of attracting his attention. In others, a woman who bears twins is persecuted as a witch. Although this superstition causes great pain and harm to innocents, there may be some justification for it. Several demonological texts recommend the sacrifice of a pair of twins of at least six years of age as part of a ritual to summon the Prince of Demons to the material plane. The sacrifice of twins, along with precious materials and more noisome artefacts, is mentioned to increase the likelihood that Demogorgon will be favourably disposed towards the summoner.

deadtwins

In a region where the local people secretly practice the exposure of unwanted children, they tell of Demogorgon, the demon-child. This evil spirit hides in wild places and cries out in distress like a human baby. The local people are suspicious of outsiders, especially clerics and paladins, for they cleave to many ancient pagan traditions. They will warn travellers that this demon can make an uncannily convincing impression, but the cries in the wilderness should under no circumstances be investigated, for Demogorgon will lure you to your doom.

A baby born with two heads is seen as a terrible omen and a sign that Demogorgon has cursed the community for some offence (or more likely, simply out of his normal malice). Some people slay the child and bury it in sanctified ground and hope for the best. Yet more common is the belief that if the two-headed child is nurtured, praised and given the best food and comforts the community has to offer, the Prince of Demons shall be appeased, and stay his wrath as long as the child lives. The child will mature quickly in intelligence and speak prophecy from one head, and tell of the location of hidden treasures with the other, though the heads will often bicker amongst themselves and contradict each other. Most such children perish nonetheless, and elders quick to blame future misfortune on this. However, if the child sent by Demogorgon is properly cared for and ceremoniously dedicated to the demon prince, it will grow into an ettin, its supernatural intelligence diminishing as its muscles grow. This strong monster will glut itself on the resources of the village for years but also use its might to defend it from threats, until a short time after maturity, when its taste for manflesh overwhelms its last vestige of humanity.

ettinssss

Two-faced instigator of strife and enemy of mankind, Demogorgon is invoked by oppressor and oppressed alike. Haughty kings and fiery demagogues are compared to him in chronicles, for their power of violence and manipulation. ‘The speaker held the crowd in his thrall, as if under the watch of The Dark Lady, and with poisonous words whipped them into a frenzy against their rightful liege’ (Melkiah of Orryane, Fall of the House of Atriesi), ‘…and in those days following the Cerithian War, Tiranpolis descended into anarchy and bloodshed, for the gaze of The Prince of Demons was upon them, and made them forget themselves, turning brother against brother, father against son, servant against master’ (Algernon the Azure Sage, An Account of the Desagan Peninsula during the Fourth Age).

A scrawled note on a forbidden tome of occult lore recounts a legend that Demogorgon was once tricked by a mischievous godling into looking into his own eyes and has ever since been afflicted with a suicidal mental anguish, in which he lures powerful mortals to his lair in the Abyss and goads them to destroy him. A latter-day annotation points out the difficultly of distinguishing between sane and insane demons, and states drily that whatever his mental state, Demogorgon clearly does not hesitate to slaughter any presumptuous heroes who approach him.

An examination of the lairs of lizardmen reveals evidence that Demogorgon is known to them as a baneful entity who is supplicated out of fear. However, among larger, domineering lizard kings, adventurers who have escaped captivity, have testified to the popularity of an active cult of Demogorgon. The lizard king cult demands ritual human sacrifice and the veneration of mutant lizard men as elites second only to the lizard kings themselves. The aristocracy and shamans of these evil tribes are dominated by two-headed mutants.

 

2hliz

FF lizard men rule

 

Another scaly race that worships Demogorgon is the Yuan-Ti. Originally a tropical empire of humans, the Yuan-Ti revered serpents and the ruins of their cities testify to their veneration of an entire pantheon of various snake-creatures, including the spirit naga and lamia, which were worshipped as demi-gods living on this plane, and the Type V demons as spirits of war and guardians. At the head of this pantheon was Demogorgon, depicted alternately in male and female aspects. As much as she detested their human forms, Demogorgon carefully nurtured the empire of Yuan-Ti through centuries of glory and hubris, before fouling their blood and twisting their minds and bodies into something more worthy of her patronage. Although now a fallen power, few among the Yuan-Ti, lament their lost humanity, preferring to revel in the strength The Dark Lady has granted them.

yanit

It is known among wise sea-faring folk that Ixitxachtil serve The Bane of Souls, and it is rumoured that a hapless victim threatened by these foul creatures can declare allegiance to Demogorgon in front of their priests and have their life spared. Such individuals are enchanted to breathe water and put to work as slaves or spies for the demon rays. The occasional sole survivor of a shipwreck, who returns to his people after some time when his fellows have perished, is sometimes looked at askance because of this legend. At least one innocent man is known to have survived a wreck only to be drowned by his neighbours, to ascertain whether he was a spy enchanted to breathe water.

In grimoires and demonological texts, Demogorgon is noted as one of the most difficult demon lords to bind and command, and recommends that anyone attempting so spare no expense in both their ritual materials and offerings of tribute to The Bane of Souls. Many include a cautionary tale of some of his victims. Yet the Prince of Demons has much to offer the intelligent summoner. According to the Demononicon Demogorgon’s service can include the following:

  • Curses of ruin to a rival
  • To be feared and obeyed by those around you
  • Place another person or monster under your total mental control
  • To cure or bestow insanity, or to perceive the hidden truths in the ramblings of lunatics
  • Sow strife and discord among your enemies
  • Command over reptiles or sea creatures
  • The ability to speak the language of serpents
  • Immunity to poison or disease
  • Polymorph ability to snake, lizard or octopus
  • Instruction in the casting of masterful illusions

When summoning Demogorgon, aside from the typical trappings, the summoner is advised to additionally furnish the summoning chamber with certain items to increase the chance of success, such as:

  • Sacrifice of human twins
  • The body of a baby who has died of exposure
  • The hides of giant serpents and lizards, or statues of same worked in precious materials
  • Lizard man teeth
  • Banderlog heads
  • Broken holy swords
  • Snake venom
  • Ixitxcachtil spines
  • Defiled icons of Orcus
  • The thigh bone of a man or woman who has killed their brother or sister

One ambitious sorcerer, Derrash Mak of the Black Invocations, had particular success when he fashioned an effigy of the Prince of Demons using the body of a giant lizard, giant serpent tails and giant octopus tentacles, mounted with banderlog heads. This was done in a similar manner to the preparation of a flesh golem. Demogorgon manifested within the effigy and spoke to him, divulging many secrets. Although the fate of  Derrash Mak is lost to time, legend has it that the effigy itself escaped, possessed by demonic malice, into the catacombs of the city in which he dwelled.

That about wraps up my riff on Demogorgon, though I’m sure I’ll have more to add on it sooner or later, but if you need more I’d be amiss if I didn’t also refer you to this, Zak S.’s meta (and metal) take on the God of Total Party Kills.

 

The Unspeakable Cults

For the next series here on Power Word Kill, I’m going to get stuck in to what was undoubtably one of the most fascinating aspects of the game once I got my hands on the Monster Manual – the Demons and Devils. They were the most ‘fantasy’ element of the game and from their entries in the MM as well as some others one could piece together images from the planar cosmology of the D&D’s ‘implied setting’. The early books, by way of these monsters, fleshed out the lower plans and the fate of the damned in D&D considerably more than the upper or neutral planes.

demons

1E AD&D’s treatment of demons and devils is one of the stand-out things about the edition that keeps me coming back to it. The rules and lore surrounding their amulets, their hierarchies and dwelling places all give the game great flavour, and a mysterious, ‘authentic’ feel. Their old simple B&W illustrations are reminiscent of medieval images of demons in art and even their descriptions echo what one would find in an Ars Goetia style occult text. This kind of dark evocative detail delighted my nerdy-goth-metal-punk teenage mind. The whole ‘satanic panic’ reaction against D&D was before my time, but funnily enough, I borrowed some occult books from my DM as a teen, which caused a minor spat with my mother when discovered. Good thing the DM was a family friend. Anyway, the religious fundamentalist reaction against D&D led to the purging of demons and devils (not to mention my beloved half-orcs) from the game in its revision for 2nd Edition, and I think they haven’t really recovered since. Sure, Planescape did nice work with the lower planes and brought back the fiends without using the ‘d-words’, but they lost some of their mystery and dread by becoming powerful races of monsters with magic powers in a setting filled with such. Post-AD&D versions of the game seem to have a depressing trend of presenting demons and related fiends as simply powerful monsters for battles, a far cry from the 1E MM where the descriptions go on at length on ways to bind or treat with these beings via amulets, circles, etc. James M over at grognardia nails this shift in his analysis of the visual history of Orcus.

I want my demons and devils to be more than just combat encounters, I want them to have a presence in the world. Even at low level play, the Demon Lords and Arch-Devils’ influence should be felt. A leering visage on a cracked church fresco, their many names written with a trembling hand in ancient chronicles or tomes of forgotten lore. In curses, fetishes, cultural taboos and weird superstitions. In the ravings of the wide-eyed apocalyptic fanatic on the street corner and the macabre rhymes sung by children to frighten each other. This way when PCs encounter a demon or devil in the ‘flesh’ they’ll know they’re face to face with a whole other level of danger.

paladin-in-hell1

To this end, I’m preparing a new blog series ‘Unspeakable Cults’ to develop these demons and devils in 1E along these lines. As well as some additional lore, there’ll be game material about legends, cults, rituals, superstitions, locations and items associated with each fiend or type thereof. I’ll be tackling each demon and devil in order of appearance from the 1E MM, FF and MM2, and if I can keep steam going take on some of the other similar beings in the books (Daemons, Slaad, Elemental Princes etc), even I think as the number of these monsters increase, they become somewhat less inspired or inspiring and more fiend-by-numbers, there should be a few choice ones here and there. This should hopefully provide some useful fodder for your old school games, despite your divine set-up or metaphysical cosmology. There may be no universal pantheon of gods across D&D worlds, but given their deep roots in the game, Demogorgon and Asmodeus probably have a hand in more game worlds than Ra, Vishnu or Odin taken together. Coming up first are the demons, (two-) headed by the big D himself.

Orctober part 4 – more orcs, more problems

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.

orcto44

business as usual

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.

orcto43

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.

orcto48

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.
rat a tooey

rat a tooey

  • 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.
Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

  • 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.
reaction roll

reaction roll

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.

Orctober part 3 – Unearthed Orcana

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.

Evil Eye

ianmiller3

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.

Mechanics: 

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.

Broken Bone

 

brjenv

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.

Mechanics:

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.

Death Moon

lephand

 

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.

Mechanics:

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.

Dripping Blade

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.

Mechanics:

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.

Leprous Hand

OrcWarsIsengardOrcs

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.

Mechanics:

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.

 

Vile Rune

vilrune

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.

Mechanics:

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.

 

 

 

Orctober part 2 – half orc half biscuit

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)

Liz's Danforth's MERP half-orc

Liz Danforth’s MERP half-orc, better than any of their example illustrations in AD&D

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.

Damnit, Gygax

Damnit, Gygax, I’m my own person, demi-human, humanoid, or whatever.

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.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

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.

No prince charming, but he’ll get the job done.

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.

5e half-orc paladin. Continues with the trend of making them much beefier and more inhuman looking, but I like 5e’s treatment of half-orcs in general.

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?

Orctober part 1 – From OD&D to Advanced

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.

orcflail

One at the back is all, like, ‘fucking hell Grishnakh, do you just have to be so dramatic all the time?’

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.

Ian Miller’s LoTR orcs

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.

Frazetta’s take. Bro, do you even squat?

 

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.

warcraft_orcs_humans-400-400

face to squinty-eye face

 

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).

menmagaligntab

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.

Angus McBride’s orcs. How’d they all fit into that tower on the cliff? Multiple dungeon levels, obviously.

 

 

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 Orcology

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:

Advanced Orcs. Less morally complex, but they know bunch of languages and are good miners

Advanced Orcs. Less morally complex, but they know bunch of languages and are good miners.

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?

baby’s first morning star

 

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.

Ok, so it’s mostly this kind of cheesecake thing. On the internet, why sexualise when you can hyper-sexualise?

 

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.

One of my favourites from Ian Miller, which I believe shows a mix of orcs and half orcs

 

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.