Monday, June 29, 2020

OSE Encounter Activities - Orc

We have reached entry #137: The Orc, the final one before I begin the process of compiling all these together under a unified layout and do a little proof-reading/editing. During this time, I’ll also be finishing up the multi-page entries for Dragons (since it’s 7 Monsters masquerading under one Entry, and I’ve decided to treat them a little differently and I want to make sure I can accommodate them appropriately in cohesive spreads).

This is another Monster entry I started on a while back, but just as I was putting the finishing touches on it, some interesting discussions developed in my periphery that had me second guessing myself on how best to handle the Entry for Orc. But hey, I did the distasteful Dervish, so we trundle onward.

Like the humble Halfling, I typically do not employ Orcs very often in my games these days. They’re simply just not as mythologically rich as most of the other Humanoid Monsters, and most of the attempts to make them more interesting still leave me a little cold. Mostly these days, it’s just a remixable stat block for me whenever I need a 1 HD, Humanoid Creature.

Others, much more clever than me, have agitated more and better electrons on the subject, but in the interest of transparency, I’ve included my own complicated history with the Orc below the table.

Here we have the final d100 Encounter Activity table, based on a reading of the Monster description for the broadest possible utility. You may also find a few of the following useful, depending on how you use Orcs in your games: Veterans, Mediums, Acolytes, Bandits, Normal Humans, Pirates, Buccaneers, Nomads, Merchants, Dervishes, Traders, Nobles, Brigands, and Berserkers.

Decades ago, when I started running D&D games for my friends, I was still in the target demographic for Saturday Morning Cartoons and Sugary Cereals with prizes inside. I had read a bit of The Hobbit, but not yet tackled the Lord of The Rings trilogy. I had extraordinarily little information on what Orcs were outside of the occasionally tantalizing Pig-Faced illustration. They were tougher than Goblins and Kobolds, but there still wasn’t much to go on touchstone-wise, so at the kitchen tables we began to weave our own mythologies for them, informed by our exposure to various pop culture tropes at the time.

From the media we collectively consumed as children, in order to be adequately “heroic,” heroes needed a lot of nameless Evil fodder to mow through: Stormtroopers in Star Wars, COBRA Vipers, etc. In these callow times, Orcs served this role relatively well. They became my go-to for generic and numerous, monolithically Chaotic Monsters that my players could eradicate without compunctions or consequences.

But this started to gradually change. After running B2 a few times through, it started to chafe a bit with my burgeoning sensibilities. I’m sure most veterans are familiar with the inhabitants of those awkward “COMMON ROOM” encounters. I might imagine that the “9 young (who do not fight)” were intentionally placed by a grinning Gygax in a fit of unrestrained, slightly sadistic naturalism, but their presence had the side effect of introducing considerable complications to our tales. What do we, the “Heroes” of these stories we are telling, do with a bunch of sobbing Orc young after slaughtering their parents?

With the many sorties to the Caves of Chaos I ran, I had all sorts of players end up doing all sorts of things when confronted with this clumsy morality test, running the gamut from utterly awful to unexpected adoption, but none of them really sat right with me. So I eventually ruled that Orcs didn’t reproduce. They were just there, a pervasive, possibly parthenogenic incarnation of Chaos, and I quietly scrubbed those kinds of complicating references whenever I came across them. The Cauldron-Born from Lloyd Alexander were probably a close analog I employed at the time, and I think at some point I went something similar to the Warhammer “Fungus” concept.

This worked well and good for a few years, until we grew a little older, and the mythologies we were making started to subtly shift once more. I started to have players that wanted to make Half-Orc Characters, throwing my lazy “fix” out the window. We wanted to tell more stories about “anti-heroes,” and were drawn to all the associated grey-areas and edge. We’d “matured” to the stage of Graphic Novels, Horror Movies, the associated More Mature Themes, and a grittier, uglier pop-culture. Orcs needed to have much more dimension to find their place in these new stories. There needed to be room for tragically sympathetic figures, and brooding/misunderstood individuals. They progressively stopped being monolithic and started becoming a People.

But this created it’s own problems. I’m pretty sure that almost any DM from these days is guilty of the same kind of kludge. Being original is often hard. Imagining things whole cloth out of nothing and convincingly conveying them is challenging, if not impossible at times. So, in times like these we relied on similar shorthands to front-load a ton of “believable” information instantaneously.

We stole from our underdeveloped and incomplete knowledges of reality/history, maybe filing off a few of the rougher edges, but the results were largely the same: These are Aztec Orcs. These are Mongol Orcs. These Orcs are basically Vikings. These Orcs are embodiments of our jejune and highly problematic interpretations of the “Noble Savage” ideal. Decades ago, at the tables of my teenage years, there was never any intentional malice driving any of this, just sheer laziness and that desire to furnish Orcs with a culture and more dimension as we attempted to try and tell richer, more meaningful stories.

It would seem that this creative laziness has still managed to become somewhat entwined with some of the current Orc stylings I come across. Resisting the urge to regress to the old habits of careless appropriation is still something I struggle with. I admit, I am sometimes sorely tempted to return, full-circle, to the Monolithically Opposed to Order, vat-spawned Orcs bereft of culture and depth. But this too, is lazy. It never hurts to challenge oneself and one’s old habits.

Other than my admonishments against lazy appropriation, I don’t have a fix or solution to offer. You will need to find your Orc on your own, and it should be one that works for your table and the stories you are working together to tell.


  1. Literally came to see if you had a total collection on a cloud somewhere! Your work has been awesome! Can't wait for the properly laid out version :)

    Also, really like Gorgon Trail

  2. This is a good history of the Modern Orc, and even a sort of parallel history of trends in fantasy imaginings over the last four decades.

  3. I just went through this in my own game. The orcs were Yakuza. I know almost nothing about Yakuza. The men used Katana. The females were acrobatic and threw knives. It took place in a sushi restaurant. My wife rolled her eyes. But it was a good fight.

  4. OMG I almost share every step of your orc evolution! Cyclic come back of the moral dilemmas throughout teen and young adult ages after alot of mindless slaughtering as a child. I also ditched them completely for quite some "low fantasy" time. Recently I had a version where literally mongol-orcs united under a human Kahnate and started crossbreeding. I lack the fungus-type but I have the mass-crafted from enslaved humans in my belt (that's basically Tolkien version I admit).




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