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.”