D&D’s distinctive orcs

When I design adventures, I always hesitate to use orcs as adversaries.

My difficulty is two-fold.

First, the characterization of orcs as unstoppable foot soldiers in service to an evil entity as was done in the Lord of the Rings motion pictures is so iconic I balk at being able to pull off the same.

Secondly, the orc template — a barbarian horde of ravaging subhumans that threaten to overwhelm civilization by smashing through city gates to rape, pillage and devour all in their path — has too often been used by insidious propagandists to heighten our fear of real world enemies.

The latter’s connection is particularly troubling. The brutish image of the orc comes too close to depictions of “the other” during wartime. The Germans of World War I become the ravening “Huns,” to heighten the “yellow peril’ Asians are depicted as the “Mongol horde” and in manipulative hands, Cold War-era Russians become murderous “Cossacks.”  Without care, it can be too easy to fall into the trap of using the such stereotypes and layering them onto the orc and muddling the distinction between them.

Of course, some people recast them as being a proud warrior race; making them to Dungeons and Dragons what the Klingons were to Star Trek. But ennobling them has never felt right either. The orcs may have valid reasons for protecting their territory. But I find that if their answer to every problem is to rise up and kill it, it tarnishes them in my eyes.

Orcs destroy. It’s hard to get around that depiction.

In thinking about how to use orcs in a D&D adventure I am often inspired by the characterization of Obould Many Arrows from the Hunter’s Blade trilogy written by R.A. Salvatore.  Obould’s arc as a minor warband captain who takes over a fort — but can’t hold it (orcs being orcs, of course) — to winning the favor of the orc god Gruumsh One-Eye on the path to building an army and, eventually, a kingdom, is compelling.  He is a tragic figure, despite being a formidable adversary for the drow ranger Drizzit Do’Urden. He has a vision of the orcs achieving — as a species — a civilization, brokering it from the position of strength on the battlefield. But upon achieving his dream, Obould’s legacy begins slowly to disintegrate, again because orcs are orcs and they cannot abide peace.

Obould is an outlier, insofar as orcs think and behave. But I think Obould demonstrates there is more to the D&D orc than its Tolkien counterpart, or, at least, what Peter Jackson gave us on the battleground of Pelennor Fields.

Over the last three editions of the game, in fact, designers have been vigorously crafting a stronger picture of the orcs. It has shown up in the evolving entries from the third-, fourth- and fifth-edition Monster Manuals. Worship, fear and superstition are driving forces in orc lives. And their faith depends on more than just devotion to the war-god Gruumsh. Piecing together the Forgotten Realms lore of the other orc deities, including figures such as the mother deity Luthic, they have presented the semblance of an orc society in new products. Volo’s Guide to Monsters is far from being the first D&D product to provide a detailed look at orc society, but it might be the one with the most utility.

Certainly, it’s given me a story reason to include orcs in an adventure I’m writing for the DM’s Guild without resorting to either a stereotype or falling back onto [insert evil creature here].  Why is this orc in this underground complex primarily tended to by humans? Well, thanks to the entry on Luthic and some other bits of Forgotten Realms lore, I can offer the Dungeon Master an explanation.

Ultimately, it might not matter to the players exploring the dungeon. The perspective of players on an adventure is never easy to pinpoint.  Their satisfaction for the encounter may never rise above: “Oh, good, we get to attack an orc.” But at least I feel confident that my choice to include orcs serves the story as much as it serves my need for a monster with a challenge rating of one-half.

Look, Dungeons and Dragons is hardly the first game to take a monster and make it catchy with details and description. That’s thoughtful presentation and strong writing.  Paizo so reinvigorated the lowly goblin into a singing menace for Pathfinder it’s essentially the company mascot. Open Design so effectively adopted the kobold the company name changed to Kobold Press.

But in casting the orcs as the godsworn, D&D has given us orcs that are motivated and driven by faith. They aren’t zealots — well, the vast majority aren’t. But obedience to the likes of Gruumsh and Luthic is a framework that offers  far more interesting and involved storytelling.

If nothing else, the next time the adventurers encounter orcs in a dungeon and they inquire: What are you doing here? — the orcs can truthfully reply: “We have our reasons.”




Maps Galore!

Who wants to collaborate on a product full of maps?

Illustrator Patrick E. Pullen asked that question late last summer in a Facebook group dedicated to DM’s Guild creators. He was keen to create Maps 4 Your Adventures Set 4.

It was with a little bit of trepidation that I answered, “Yes.” I’ve been freelancing as a writer and editor for tabletop rpgs for several years. At the time, I’d never published any maps, except for a few scribbles that had appeared in my own DM’s Guild products.

And when I think of rpg cartography, I think of creators such as Rob Lazzaretti, Chris West, Todd Gamble, Jared Blando, Mike Schley, Hal Mangold, and Ed Bourelle. Whether working digitally or in traditional mediums, these mapmakers really have a knack for conveying an encounter space effectively, clearly, and attractively.

Just thinking about stepping into that space is daunting: Just me, my paint brush and a set of watercolors.

I love to paint miniatures for gaming. I do a credible job using flow acrylics. The knights look like knights, the orcs as orcs and so on. But arthritis has diminished my painting of minis (I’m sure there is something in my technique that might correct this; if you’ve a suggestion, I’m all ears). I can paint on paper without strain. But I knew that transferring that skill of painting minis to using watercolor would take practice.

The beauty and charm of the DM’s Guild, though, is it’s an online marketplace for fans — as well as pros — to share their creations. Anytime I hear the footsteps of hesitation or doubt creep into my head, I am reminded of that fact.

Do I love D&D? Yes. Is this the marketplace to for you, as a hobbyist? Yes.

Reminded of those things, I have the confidence to move forward — even if it is into an endeavor that I little experience.

So, after a period of creation and refinement — and for me, many a day spent on my back porch with brush and watercolor revising my maps, I turned over my first D&D style dungeon maps for publication.

Because we had to produce 10 maps in a short period of time, you might note the quick evolution of my “style,” such as it is. My entry “The Statue Level” was an early effort, and it shows, as I struggle with laying down ink in an appropriate fashion.

Soon, I was in a groove. At least, producing maps that meet the bare essentials for a tabletop rpg — encounter areas along a theme that a DM can use to populate with monsters, treasures, traps and hazards.

I had great fun making “Dark Cavern Bridge,” which can serve as a underground dwarven outpost on the edge of drow territory. Just playing with a pallet of purples, reds and magentas was fun.

My ode to Old School dungeons — you know, tightly packed rooms in a dungeon that takes up the entire sheet — was “The Seeping Chambers.”

And if I had to pick a map that most closely resembles the style of map I’m comfortable producing,  it would be “The Well.” Not all the technique I’ve developed is there — but there are hints of it.

All in all, however, pick it up for what my fellow collaborators produced. They are the true stars of this product, and rightfully so. I’m just grateful they let a hobbyist, such as myself, tag along.

There are some amazing dungeon maps in this collection, any single one of them is worth the purchase price, especially those that are produced digitally and can be utilized for Fantasy Grounds or Roll 20 platforms.

Here they my fellow creators:

Christian Stiehl. This is Christian’s first appearance on the DM’s Guild, but he’s no amateur. He’s been honing his skill to a professional level at the Cartographer’s Guild, a space on the web devoted to map-makers of all sorts. He’s especially good at showing elevation and expansive spaces. His Cliff Terraces map is not only a great demonstration of this skill, but for gamers, presents an intriguing challenge pitting characters against the terrain. Find him at christianstiehl.com

Derek Ruiz. Easily, one of the hardest-working and most versatile cartographers on the DM’s Guild and Drivethrurpg. His catalog contains regional maps, isometric dungeons and full adventures. I think his most useful maps are those where he focuses on a precise encounter area and illustrates it with amazing detail, such as the circus tent map in the collection. Check him out at patreon.com/elventower or at elventower.com.

Patrick E. Pullen. Our guiding light and chief orchestrator for the project. A hallmark of Patrick’s projects is always quality AND quantity. His illustrations — which have served as the covers for some of the DM’s Guild’s top-selling products — are vibrant and alive with color. His battlemaps, which this collection has several, are a great addition to any DM’s library. Like the ice cavern map or the green slime fortress, they can be pulled out and used on a moment’s notice. Patrick is here: http://www.facebook.com/pullenart/ and youtube.com/user/raistlin072/featured