Archives of Candlekeep: The Fall and Rise of the Orc
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Six on 15th July 2020.
Ostron: Ah, well at least that explains the necrotic energy surge I was detecting in the Gnomish Workshop…
Ryu: Lennon! What have we said about demon worship!?
Lennon (annoyed): Oh what is your problem? It’s not the 1980s anymore so the Satanic Panic is over! Besides, I got the note that we had to be prepared to talk about Orcus so I got these corpses and looked up the runes.
Ostron: Orcs, man, Orcs! Great now I have to siphon the energy off safely. Please pull him out of the tridecagram.
Ryu: Right. Okay.
Ryu: Yes, orcs. Not the demon god of the undead.
Lennon: So…I think it’s safe to say I’m going to need to borrow someone’s notes.
Ryu: You don’t say? Here.
Orcs have not only been a staple of D&D since the beginning, they’ve really been a staple of fantasy stories since sometime in the 1950s. As many people may have guessed, the blame for that can be laid squarely at the feet of Mr. Tolkien.
Some scholars and pedants (myself included) argue that the idea of orcs didn’t really originate with the Lord of the Rings, but at the very least the books were responsible for pushing it into the cultural mainstream. Regardless of where the concept of orcs came from, Gygax and others responsible for creating D&D have stated that the orcs used in Dungeons and Dragons owe their history to the generic enemies from Lord of the Rings.
With that premise, it’s somewhat understandable that the lore for Orcs in most editions of Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t do a lot to make them sympathetic. Their physical appearance has traditionally suggested more of a hunched humanoid frame with porcine features prominent on their faces. If you go back and look at the 1st edition monster manual, when a lot of the art was done by Gygax or others at TSR who weren’t necessarily professional artists, some of the depictions of orcs are simply bulky humanoid bodies with an unaltered pig’s head on top. Regardless of the details, nearly all of the physical descriptions focus on deep brows, reddish or glowing red eyes, wide, upturned noses, and tusks protruding from their mouths. A noteworthy detail from the descriptions is that Orcs skin is greenish or gray. The idea of fully green-skinned orcs is a more modern one, very likely influenced by sources like Games Workshop and Blizzard more than D&D.
The basic society described in early editions doesn’t recommend itself much either. It describes orcs as literally needing to fight and kill other people, while firmly of the belief they are superior to all other races, who they enslave if they can’t kill them. Except for elves, who they will kill without exception. Dwarves were also included in the “kill on sight” policy until sometime around edition 3.5. The policy also means Orcs won’t really bother with diplomacy or honoring truces unless they obviously don’t have the upper hand, and even then the common assumption is that any such agreement is only valid until the Orcs in question regain their strength and think they can overpower their opponents.
As for the land they’re after, most of their interest is a few feet down. Orcs tend to be subterranean dwellers by default; according to most sources there’s a 70% chance an orc lair will be underground. On the occasions when there is an above-ground settlement, it will usually be partially rebuilt ruins of a city that originally and probably recently belonged to someone else.
Their motivation was a belief that their worth and destiny was just to control and conquer as much land as possible, which obviously put them in conflict with anyone nearby, including each other. Orcs determine who’s in charge based on prison rules; if you can beat down the guy in charge, you become the guy in charge. And it’s always a guy, by the way; women in orc society are used as trophies, breeders, or both. That “might makes right” policy extends to other Orc clans, so if one clan can’t hold its own, another one will happily move in and take over.
Related to the orcs, literally, are half-orcs. Half-orcs are everywhere because, taken directly from the lore: “Luthic, the orc goddess of fertility and wife of Gruumsh, demands that orcs procreate often and indiscriminately so that orc hordes swell generation after generation. The orcs’ drive to reproduce runs stronger than any other humanoid race, and they readily crossbreed with other races.” Part of this might also be biological; Orcs only live to about 45 and in shorter lived species, reproduction is a primary drive. Half-orcs can be made from almost any other compatible humanoid race except elves. Half-orcs, however, are generally rejected from Orc society because they tend to be weaker, on average, than standard orcs, and the visible evidence of whatever their non-orc parentage was tends to trigger the hatred or superiority orcs have for all other races.
Other than your basic orc and the half-orcs there are only a few outliers focused on in the lore. One are the Orc shamans, who encourage the worship of the Orc gods Gruumsh and Luthic. Gruumsh is a one-eyed god focused on war, conflict, and orcish supremacy. The one-eye, by the way, is apparently because Correllon shot out the other one, so that’s part of why the Orcs aren’t big fans of the Elves.
The other unique members of Orc society are actually a subspecies called Orogs. Orogs are slightly bigger, smarter, and more cunning than your average Orc. Orogs very often become the leaders of orc bands because they can usually outsmart and outfight the other orcs, but when a lot of them are together they’ll often separate themselves and form their own band within a larger Orc community.
Basically for most of the existence of D&D, orcs were described and set up to be enemies that heroes wouldn’t really have to worry about eliminating. That persisted all the way until the first publication of the Eberron campaign setting in 2004. As those familiar with Eberron will know, and as we’ve mentioned before, a lot of the orcs in Eberron are a more peaceful and conscientious lot, with an almost druidic focus on maintaining the land. Now, there are some more traditional orcs moving around in Eberron, but you have to go out of your way to look for them; chances are the average orc you’d encounter on Eberron would be one of the more spiritual conservationist types.
The next major shift in Orc lore came as a result of the Drizzt novels. A book The Orc King published in 2007 focused on an orc clan known as “Many-Arrows” who established themselves as a relatively peaceful and sophisticated settlement of Orcs in 1371 DR, or about 120 years before the current D&D timeline. This accomplishment was credited to an orc king named Obould. While there are dissident groups within the society and other orcs tend to reject and deride the idea in the Forgotten Realms, the Many-Arrows society has persisted.
When you get to the latest incarnation of the orcs in 5th edition…frankly not much about them has changed until very, very recently. Excluding some of the more recently published adventures and the re-release of Eberron, the lore for the Orcs in the basic Monster Manual is word-for-word the same as descriptions from 3.5 or earlier. 5e did add some context to some of the Orcs’ behavior, mostly in a mythology tale of Gruumsh trying to find land for his chosen people to take and finding all of it already claimed, with the other gods unwilling to capitulate or even share, which is presented as the reason Orcs are constantly trying to conquer territory and generally dislike all the other races.
Despite that, more stories and lore following the pattern of orcs from Eberron or the settlement of Many-Arrows are starting to spread through D&D resources.
Ryu: So how’s that rune removal coming?
Ostron: It’s filtering power through the corpses. Do you think you guys can drag them out?
Ryu: Ugh. I’m so gonna need a shower before we go to the scrying pool.
Lennon: I don’t know if we have time for that.
Ryu: Let me put it this way, if I don’t get to clean up, I’m going to have KayDee sub in for me and explain to her exactly why.
Lennon: Take all the time you need.