Archives of Candlekeep: Orcus the So Very Undead

Archives of Candlekeep: Orcus the So Very Undead

This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Twenty One on 10th August 2022.

Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.


Demogorgon has gotten a lot of press lately and regularly promotes himself as the Prince of Demons and the strongest, baddest demon in the Abyss. But if you ask the being on the street it’s actually much more likely they’ll have heard of one of his main rivals.

Orcus is opposite to Demogorgon in a lot of ways, both in the real world and in lore. He’s also a fascinating character to track through the history of the game because his star, or at least his skull-topped wand, has waxed and waned in popularity a lot through the years.

Like Demogorgon, Orcus has the distinction of being a named enemy conceived of for the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Joining the other Demon Lord in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement, Orcus was also provided with a multi-paragraph treatise on appearance, attitude, and behaviors. The volume of information provided was patently unusual for creatures of the edition and cemented Orcus’s status as a formidable adversary.

However, despite the figure’s prominence overall, their inclusion in subsequent editions reflects an inconsistent assignation of importance. In first edition, Orcus was included in the initial printing of the Monster Manual, and the information within acknowledged him as the most powerful demon lord in the Abyss. That resource was also the inaugural bestowment of the title “Prince of the Undead”.

Orcus was also the primary antagonist for a series of adventure modules labeled with an “H”, with the fourth such module requiring adventurers to descend into the Abyss and battle the demon lord directly.

2nd edition is when things start to get muddled. People may remember that everyone’s new hobby in the 80s was assuming D&D was a gateway drug to satanic sex orgies. TSR spent a lot of the early years of 2nd edition trying to convince everyone that little Timmy was not learning how to worship demons from his Dungeon Master, so the demon lords were benched for a while.

2nd edition debuted in 1989. It wasn’t until 1996 in a resource called “Hellbound: The Blood War” that Orcus is even brought up. There are hints and rumors of him in a few different adventure modules for the next few years. Then in 1997, he finally features in an adventure from the resource “Dead Gods”.

3rd edition put him in the Manual of the Planes, released one year after the edition started. His lore and habits were expanded in the resources Book of Vile Darkness and Libris Mortis: The book of the Undead. Once 3.5 came around Fiendish Codex 1: Hordes of the Abyss updated his stats so they worked with the new system. Nothing much changed about his lore.

In 4th edition Orcus was the cover model for the first Monster Manual, and his stats were included within. He was also mentioned in the Manual of the Planes for that edition, and was the central figure in a series of adventures that pit him against the Raven Queen and her minions in a disagreement over who controlled what as far as dying beings was concerned.

Like Demogorgon, Orcus got his 5th edition debut in the Out of the Abyss adventure, albeit as a cameo, but he did have stats. His full character and outline didn’t appear until Mordenkainen’s tome of Foes. When that resource was “retired”, Orcus’s stats were reprinted for Monsters of the Multiverse.

As far as physical appearance, Orcus has been consistent since original D&D. Standing 15 feet tall, Orcus conforms to many traditional images of demons. He has the head of a goat, including curling horns, and a muscular humanoid body. His legs are goat legs with the hooves, and he has a pair of bat wings on his back.

The other big thing about Orcus is his wand. Variably made of obsidian or bone with a skull on the top (usually glowing sickly green) the wand itself is an insanely powerful artifact related to necromancy and the undead. In practice, it is large and heavy enough to function as a mace, and in addition to allowing the casting of a lot of really powerful spells, it was known to instantly kill a lot of beings who even attempted to touch it.

Orcus’s physical appearance conforms to his origins. Where Demogorgon was one of the original demons, forming at the start of creation, Orcus, as the saying posits, “got in at the ground floor and worked his way up.”

Though his original name is lost, Orcus is believed to have started as a mortal humanoid. He was an accomplished practitioner of evil and chaotic magic. Many assumed his arcane expertise lay in necromancy but this has not been confirmed. If true, his ambitions were either cut short or did not focus on lichdom, given that he expired. His soul was transported to the Abyss and began there as the lowliest of demons. Through the process of competition, conniving, and general subjugation, Orcus worked through the demonic hierarchy of forms. Indeed, his current body is very reminiscent of a Balor demon, widely regarded as the highest common form of demonic entities.

For the majority of his demonic existence, he has controlled the 113th level of the Abyss, dubbed Thanatos. The persistent climate of that level is frozen tundra, and only a few settlements are present. The majority of the level’s inhabitants are undead of one form or another, or the various materials, detritus, and offal used in constructing such.

One of the reasons Orcus might be more well known than Demogorgon, and occasionally is ranked as more powerful, is that he accomplishes a lot more. Demogorgon’s efforts are mostly self-centered and focus on the Abyss or the Blood War and he does not support or encourage his cultists. Orcus, on the other hand, interacts with cultists constantly. He regularly teaches them things about undead and creating more of them, will imbue them with power, and occasionally lends them some artifacts, up to and including his wand.

Additionally he’s basically the only divine or near-divine being that is in favor of the undead. Almost all the death gods hate undead because it interferes with some part of their MO. They all want to do something with the souls of the dead, good or bad. Necromancy tends to mess up those souls somehow. So if you want S-tier power and techniques for undead, Orcus is basically the only game in town, unless you can find a lich to apprentice yourself to.

He also sometimes helps out with fertility issues by stepping in as a donor, if you know what I mean. In the Forgotten Realms there was a civilization called Narfell that lasted for a few hundred years. The ruling family, the Darakhs [dar-AHKS], were supposedly all sired by Orcus.

A few hundred years after the fall of the Narfell civilization, a Red Wizard named Zhengyi [ZENG-yee] gets very into worshipping Orcus because he really wants to be a lich.  Zhengyi gathered a large number of Orcus cultists, built a citadel focused on Orcus, and even maintained a portal to the Abyss for some direct contact. The wizard’s support was so great that Orcus actually lent him his wand for a time. Zhengyi, in return, funneled so much power to Orcus that the demon lord attained godhood.

And then came those meddling kids.

Led by one Gareth Dragonsbane, the adventurers killed Zhengyi, shut down the portal, and actually destroyed the wand. That weakened Orcus enough for the Drow demigoddess Kiaransalee [kiəˈrɑːnsɑːli/ KEE-uh-RAN-sa-lee] to sneak her way into Thanatos and kill the demon lord. She took over that level of the Abyss and forbade anyone to speak Orcus’s name. When the wand reformed, she had it buried on the plane of Pandemonium.

However, Orcus’s newfound divinity was sufficient to protect him from total annihilation, and he reformed. While still a divine being, Orcus’s power was greatly diminished. To disguise the fact of his return and initiate vengeance, Orcus adopted the moniker Tenebrous. Orcus sought out and acquired the so-called Last Word, a power word with sufficient potency to kill any god who heard it, but  Orcus required full divinity to avoid self-extermination upon its use. To achieve this, Orcus required his wand.

To locate it, Orcus facilitated the homicide of Primus, the supreme leader of the Modrons. Impersonating that entity, Orcus sabotaged the Modrons normal functions and initiated a Modron March off-schedule. The Modrons’ trek through all the planes in the cosmic wheel allowed them to pinpoint the wand’s location. Upon receiving this information, Orcus abandoned his deception and left the Modrons to their fate.

Before Orcus can recover his wand and eliminate his rivals, however, a group of adventurers are able to destroy the wand for a second time. The ambient energy of the Last Word overwhelmed and destroyed Orcus at that time, however his third death was similarly impermanent.

One Quah-Nomag was a half-ogre cultist of sufficient power to facilitate a partial resurrection of Orcus. However, the ritual Nomag used only brought Orcus back as a demon lord; his stint with divinity was over for the time being. Still, that was enough for Orcus to get control of Thanatos back from the drow demigoddess and resume his title and habits as Prince of the Undead.

His next big splash was in Neverwinter, where an archmage named Maganus traded his soul to Orcus so the demon lord could, essentially, win a gang war for him. Orcus showed up with his boy Quah-Nomag, a lich called Harthoon and a half-orc vampire Kauvra. Heroes were able to prevent a full-scale demon invasion but Neverwinter was a bit of a mess afterward.

In general, Orcus actually has as much in common with Vecna as he does Demogorgon. Most of his efforts are spent gathering followers and power to reach godhood again, and he loans out artifacts to help that process along, particularly his wand. When he isn’t doing that, he tries to take over Graz’zt’s territory in the Abyss or fend off attacks from Demogorgon. The three of them really don’t get along.

One interesting thing to note about the Prince of Undeath is that he doesn’t actually like the undead that much. He doesn’t like the living, either, to be clear, and he isn’t big on the gods, come to think of it. But the point is, despite everyone going to him for help with necromancy, Orcus isn’t actually invested in the idea of the undead. He just sees them as tools. For that reason a lot of liches actually *don’t* like Orcus and won’t work with him after their transformation.

Using Orcus in a campaign is a lot easier than almost any other demon lord. As mentioned, it’s a really easy link to make a necromancer of any stripe or level someone who’s worshipping Orcus. And anyone taking that path to power is not in any way going to be in the grey area of a moral code. Undead are enemies that can be thrown at first level characters without worrying too much about outright murdering them and they scale well with the levels because you just keep adding more of them. Then once the undead and the cultists get too mundane for the party, start throwing demons at them. As mentioned, Orcus likes using undead but for his devoted followers he will loan out demons as well. And that’s assuming the necromancer or necromancers haven’t just managed to open a portal to the Abyss for the quick access option by the time the heroes get there.

A physical manifestation of Orcus will present a formidable challenge to characters within two to three levels of the experience ceiling. Lower level characters will be summarily annihilated. He has a base AC of 17 unless he is in possession of his wand, which instead makes it 20. He is capable of generating undead minions at will where characters would need to expend spell slots to accomplish similar tasks, and his control over said constructs cannot be broken. Innately or using the wand, Orcus can cast a variety of debilitating and lethal magics that are difficult to defend against. Attacks which successfully overcome Orcus’s armor class must empty a hit point pool just over 400.

As mentioned, Orcus will often willingly gift his wand to powerful sycophants on the Material Plane. Adventurers finding the artifact is a common conceit to get Orcus’s attention focused on them. The wand is given statistics in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for fifth edition. It is an extremely powerful item, easily capable of elevating the power and efficacy of any one character far beyond normal limits. However it also manifests significant risks and detrimental afflictions. It is unlikely lower level characters will be able to compensate for the issues the artifact represents.