Monsters Mastered: Orcs
A warrior race, bred for untold centuries to be perfect killing machines. Instructed by their god to brutalize and destroy all others. Trained from birth to fight and win. Taught that there is no such thing as honor or disgrace, only victory and defeat. They do not fight because they have to. They fight because they revel in it. They fight because they must.
This is what it means to be an orc.
Orcs are a staple enemy in Dungeons and Dragons. Most low-level adventuring parties will face a handful. These token encounters are usually stepping stones and forgettable hindrances on the way to grander, more memorable villains. But orcs have the potential to be so much more! This new series, Monsters Mastered, aims to help you use certain monsters to their fullest potential, both in and out of combat!
Be warned… reading between the lines about monsters in fantasy can raise some upsetting topics. Sometimes the monsters are monstrous, and do monstrous things. If that doesn’t bother you, keep reading!
We can’t talk about orcs without talking about their patron god: Gruumsh One-Eye. Gruumsh is a god of strength and war, with a particular desire for its bloodiest and cruelest aspects. He’s a warlord, not a knight. He does not care for formations, pageantry, or honor. Gruumsh cares only for victory, and the bloodier the better!
Gruumsh is an enemy of all the gods, and has been since the origin of the world. Orcish legend states…
In the beginning all the gods met and drew lots for the parts of the world in which their representative races would dwell. The human gods drew the lot that allowed humans to dwell where they pleased, in any environment. The elven gods drew the green forests, the dwarven deities drew the high mountains, the gnomish gods the rocky, sunlit hills, and the halfling gods picked the lot that gave them the fields and meadows. Then the assembled gods turned to the orcish gods and laughed loud and long. "All the lots are taken!" they said tauntingly. "Where will your people dwell, One-Eye? There is no place left!"
There was silence upon the world then, as Gruumsh One-Eye lifted his great iron spear and stretched it over the world. The shaft blotted the sun over a great part of the lands as he spoke: "No! You Lie! You have rigged the drawing of the lots, hoping to cheat me and my followers. But One-Eye never sleeps. One-Eye sees all. There is a place for orcs to dwell…here!," he bellowed, and his spear pierced the mountains, opening a mighty rift and chasms. "And here!," and the spearhead split the hills and made them shake and covered them in dust. "And here!," and the black spear gouged the meadows and made them bare.
"There!" roared He-Who-Watches triumphantly, and his voice carried to the ends of the world. "There is where the orcs shall dwell! There they will survive, and multiply, and grow stronger, and a day will come when they cover the world, and they will slay all of your collective peoples! Orcs shall inherit the world you sought to cheat me of!"
Gruumsh shares his hatred with his orcs, teaching them to hate the races governed by these treacherous gods. It is Gruumsh’s desire that orcs rule the world, both above and below. His dogma dictates that orcs live their lives in service of this lofty goal, making themselves ready to conquer, subjugate, and destroy.
Gruumsh has a special hatred for his brother Correllon, god of the elves. Much like orcs and elves themselves, Gruumsh and Corellon are perfect opposites. One is graceful, gentile, and erudite, the other brutish, brash, and cunning. They have clashed many times, Corellon claiming one of Gruumsh’s eyes, giving rise to his shameful monicker. Gruumsh gladly urges his followers to strike out at elves in vengeance whenever possible, and prefers no sacrifice more than elven flash.
This does not mean that Gruumsh, and his orcish followers, do not care for tactics. Quite the opposite! Orcs are strategists on par with any found amongst men or elves. The difference is that there is nothing that an orc won’t stoop to, no trick too underhanded, no convention that is sacred, and no deed too dastardly to employ. Orcs don’t play nice… they play to win. And they play for keeps.
Orcish society centers around strength. Orc leaders earn their places at the top of the clan due to being stronger than the rest. This not necessarily physical strength, or even martial prowess, but sheer power to crush any that oppose them. The chieftains of orc clans may be sorcerous shamans or wizened warlocks as often as barbaric battlers. They believe that strength is a blessing from Gruumsh, and they are divinely obliged to follow those that possess it.
Apart from their historical hatred of other humanoids, orcs do not discriminate. They admire strength, no matter who or what may have it. They will ally themselves with trolls, evil giants, ogres, and other creatures, even serving them so long as their interests align.
An orc chieftain takes as many mates from among the clan as they please, that they might produce orc offspring of similar or even greater caliber as themselves. Spouses are chosen based on their potential to produce strong warriors as children. The most appealing partner in the eyes of an orc is one that could most likely kill them, if pressed. Orcs are fecund, and orc females will spend much of their lives bearing children to bolster and strengthen the clan. Orcish children experience puberty more quickly than humans, and are fit to fight as soon as they come of age! If even a handful of orcs survive a clash, the clan will rise to its former strength with alarming speed.
Orcs with great skill or insight may be given positions of honor in the clan, allowing the chieftain to delegate certain duties to them, but the authority of the chief cannot be overruled. There is no lower or middle class in an orc tribe. Since all orcs except the chief fall into the broad category of second class citizens tantamount to “not chief”, there are always contenders for leadership of the clan. An orc chief is always on their guard for assassinations, plots, and schemes to slay or dethrone them, just as every other orc watches keenly for an opportunity to seize control. Not that an orc would throw their life away on a foolish or suicidal attempt to become chief… they only vie for power if they think they can maintain it. But since orcish life is a long and continuous struggle to become stronger, few orcs go their entire lives aspiring to be the strongest and take their rightful place at the head of the tribe.
Because orcs have no homeland, their individual clans are spread out and disorganized. This makes them a manageable, but still deadly, threat to the enemies surrounding their camps. Occasionally, orc chieftains of great power will subjugate and absorb other clans into their own, quickly growing the size of their army. An orc warband, or horde, can arise and unify very quickly when there is a leader powerful enough to unite them. When word of an orc horde spreads, the other races of the world unify to defeat them, for an army of orcs unified under a single vision is a threat not to a kingdom, but to a continent.
An orc is at its most fulfilled when in the throes of combat. There’s little they love more than breaking the bodies and spirits of their opponents. They are quick to run into a battle, and slow to flee, using their Aggressive trait to its fullest. When orcs charge, they close the distance to their enemies with surprising speed.
While orc shamans and priests exist, orcs prefer to engage in martial combat. This is because Orcs that earn Gruumsh’s blessing by doing so (often Eyes of Gruumsh or War Chiefs) gain the Gruumsh’s Fury trait that allows them to deal an additional 1d8 damage with any weapon. This makes orc warriors especially deadly when compared to other races, giving them a distinct advantage.
As mentioned above, orcs are strangers to battlefield formations and maneuvers, but that doesn’t mean they are not tactical. Orcs prioritize their targets, slaying more vulnerable or valuable enemies first. They are likely to use their Aggressive trait to rush enemy spellcasters or ranged combatants to put them at a disadvantage or prevent them from concentrating on spells, then work together to topple heavily armored or hardy foot soldiers. Orcs prefer not to fight fair, and will use their own ranged attacks from a distance to take down melee combatants before they get close enough to fight on their terms. While Gruumsh believes in brash and brazen battle, orcs are not above stealthy assassinations. The orc god of sneakiness and darkness, Shargaas, promotes shadowy murder in his doctrine, and empowers orcs that seek out enemy officers or leaders to slay them in their sleep.
There are nearly a dozen different base orc stat blocks (most of them in Volo’s Guide to Monsters) to choose from, not including tanarukks, half-ogres, and other orc allies and crossbreeds. Be sure to vary the types of orcs in every encounter. And feel free to monkey with the orc stat blocks. Give them different armor and weapons, even magical ones! Orcs use everything they loot, and it’s very unlikely that all orcs carry spears and greataxes. Give a more cowardly orc a shield, give orcs bows and crossbows, and let them wear breastplates and chainmail. This will make orcs in your encounters feel unique, and allow you to vary the challenge of different combats based on the quality of gear the orcs have access to.
While orcs don’t often have the wherewithal to create their own poisons, they will eagerly employ any they find. They will also use disease-ridden corpses or living creatures (even fellow orcs) as biological weapons against their enemies.
If orcs lay siege to a town or city, they do everything in their power to make the lives of those inside miserable. They will block rivers, burn crops, befoul water sources, and otherwise cause their enemies to suffer. The orcs have no Geneva Conventions, they have Gruumsh Conventions… and they say “Anything goes!”
When creating an encounter including orcs, have them be the aggressors as often as possible. Have them attack under the cover of darkness, during a heavy storm, or while the enemy is sleeping. Have them strike swiftly where they will deal the greatest blow to their enemy, and be sure to emphasize their brutality as they rampage through their foes.
In future installments of Monsters Mastered, this space will be used to suggest ways that you might make improvements on the monsters as they are presented in WOTC’s published works. But for orcs, there isn’t much work to be done!
You could consider playing against type and having orcs that are unusually intelligent, that train more as an army than a horde, or that emphasize magic over martial dominance… but that’s not who orcs are, and it isn’t their purpose in the game.
These creatures are monsters in every sense of the word, and they are at their best when they are allowed to be just that. Don’t make them redeemable, relatable, sympathetic, or misunderstood. Make them heinous, make them deadly, and make them the stuff of waking nightmares, and they’ll be an unforgettable element of your game.
In Your Campaign
Orcs are one of the more common of the intelligent evil races that characters are likely to encounter on their adventures. They live and hunt above ground, but are comfortable in subterranean environments. They are obliged to hide out of the sight of the other humanoid races, who would hunt them down, so they often make their homes in places we’d consider “dungeons”: cave complexes, old ruins, barrows, and the like. They make sense for almost every adventuring environment, and that is by design. The creators of the game WANT you to make use of these guys in your story.
Orcs are aggressive by nature. They do not labor or craft as the other races do. Much like House Greyjoy, orcs “do not sow.” Orcs will not farm when they can pillage, and won’t craft what they can steal. When an orc tribe runs low on anything: food, weapons, armor, mates, or decorative throw pillows, they raid. Raiding is a regular and anticipated part of orcish life. They do not raid because they must, but they do so because it thrills them!
An orc raid is a thing of swift brutality. No warning is offered, no quarter is given, and no parley accepted. A village, town, or caravan may not realize that the attack has begun until it is already too late. Orcs hate the other humanoid races, and will cause them whatever grief they can. They will usually break or burn anything they cannot carry back with them out of spite.
In a raid, an orc never pursues money. Gold and silver are the currencies of the civilized world, and mean nothing to an orc. A village raided by orcs may have very little left, but nary a coin will be touched. An orc’s priority in a raid is livestock. Beasts of burden can walk on their own to the orc camp after the raid, and can help carry other loot in the process, before being slaughtered and eaten. Their next goal is to acquire weapons and armor, since orcs cannot make their own to the quality that other races do. Orcs will also search out food and drink, especially alcohol, which they are incapable of making for themselves. Finally, orcs will secure any prisoners that pique their interest, either as potential food, sacrifices, or mates… or all of the above. Half-orcs are often born of an orc tribe’s prisoners, or the survivors of these raids.
Orcs are a great antagonistic force to include in your D&D games. While they may seem standard or old hat, these creatures are a staple in D&D campaigns for good reason! They are reprehensible creatures that despise other humanoid races and thrive on their destruction. They provide a great enemy option that is morally uncomplicated, being considered kill-on-sight by the civilized races of the world. They embody evil, violence, rage, and aggression more so than any other humanoid race in canonical fiction of the world, rivaled only by extraplanar creatures like demons. They interact with other monsters in interesting and exciting ways, and are intelligent enough to employ effective tactics in combat that will test your player’s strategies and resources.
What excites you most about orcs? Did you learn anything new about them in this article? What changes would you make to orcs to make them more compelling or frightening? Comment below, or reach out on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or in our Discord community!
Rob Franklin (@thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.