Orcs, the Panic of Banjos

This is part of a series exploring some advice on how to use certain monsters in your games–a resource for flavor and occasional combat tips. This is from an old post, being reposted–I expect I’ll revise in the near future.

By and large, I think most people feel they have a grasp on most monsters–so I don’t want anyone thinking my takes on these things are me saying how things SHOULD be… I only want to talk about how they CAN be.

To that end. Orcs. I think for those influenced by classic fantasy, Orcs are like Lord of the Rings creatures or maybe something from WoW–I was never exposed to anything fantasy before D&D and even then, never really anything in the high-fantasy settings (like Forgotten Realms). So, what I made of Orcs (and how I think of them) is driven by sort of a natural analogue.

In my games, I treat orcs as something very much like the most dangerous imagining of an Appalachian hillbilly possible. I think positioning them like this offers a few huge advantages to natural role-play…

  1. As a chaotic and evil sort of species, they’re unstructured and largely familial and tribal. When you run into pods of them they aren’t a “society” (Lawful things build those) and they aren’t “looking out for each other” (Good things do that). They’re petty. They run together out of fear and anger and a sense of xenophobia about everything else. That can splinter in a heartbeat. I like to keep a small chance that (pending circumstances) someone could convince one Orc to go violent-crazy on their kin in a heartbeat. Even in combat. I imagine them as being drawn together for battle, but being often resentful of each other and constantly showing each other up. Their unity is highly questionable. They should come on like a terrifying wave of violence, but be easy to dissapate with sensible actions. I had a game situation, once, where the illusionist in the party cast some sound that sounded like an Orc making fun of another one right after that one missed a hit. I gave that a simple Wis save to represent keeping his composure (not disbelieving the sound), he failed and his next action was to spin around and sink a great axe into the Orc right behind him. The whole fight devolved into chaos after that with Orcs fighting players, fighting other Orcs, sicking wolves on each other… total madness.
  2. As to motivations for attacking PC’s, I bury that in three places… first, Orcs are deeply impoverished (again, imagine some Stephen King level rednecks in the mountains). Anything worth anything, they’re going to steal and kill whoever has it. Second, Orcs are absolutely ignorant and racist. Third, perverse sexual and sadistic reasons. Imagine the most racist and bigoted, outspoken bastard from the worst of American history? That caricature? That’s how I RP my Orcs. They have a perverse facination with subjugating other races, but not really in a productive so much a punitive and self-aggrandizing way. Rapes are common. Beatings. Hangings, even. torture. Slave labor. They everything they CAN’T breed with as not even a person and everything they CAN breed with as a second-class person at best. Elves, being so different, are the pretentious and “French” trash of the Orcish world. To that end, their combat takes a priority, kill the elves… kill the other demihumans… knock out the humans, take them for slaves/breeding. Even so, though, they regard Half-Orcs as the retarded cousins they hate, but tolerate. They’re the runty, miserable weak bastards of the clan. Most Half-Orcs live the worst possible in-between… they never survive “the family” as they get older (the playful childhood beatings turn into reckless savagry by the time they’re adults), and the rest of the world sees them as an Indian off the reservation. Racial animosity factors in heavily. The rage and anger and retribution of a marginalized, white-nationalist, hillbilly collective who blames EVERYONE in the world for why they aren’t living better. They’re not enlightened, they’re not animalistic… they’re just terrible people. Full of prejudice and ignorance, power and petty ambition, driven to stay busy because the alternative is staying in the hills and mountains with the clan and eventually murdering each other out of even pettier resentments.
  3. As to the general dressing up of RP with them, I usually have Orcish sound grating and classically “orc-like” to anyone who doesn’t speak it (He points and says “KRUK GAH MAK gggggrrrrrrrrrrrULUUU” at you), and to those that speak Orcish share with them (in my best dark, redneck drawl) “Whatchu thank you doin’ ’round here… boy?” In my current game, we have a Half-Orc (who was not aware of this layer of Orc characterization as I use them), and we explained the surprise of all of it as largely being born of his character having grown up almost entirely around humans and human-dominant cities. A very “normal” Half-Orc. His first interactions with Orcs were embarrassing… disgusting… because we tied a lot of real Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and early Merle from The Walking Dead like violence and ignorance and not just “fantasy evil” but understandable “realistic” terribleness to it, he was just repulsed by Orcish culture. That’s not to say there isn’t comedy in there, there was–but even that comedy was tainted by embarrassing his character because these are “his people”. The dark cavern of orcs, of course, has trained pet alligators (for gater rasslin’) and the screeching sound of metal on metal and drums sounds for everyone else sounds like good smoooth bluegrass to the Half-Orc. The sexual deviations are comedic, but most often the Half-Orc just lowers his head and PURPOSEFULLY doesn’t tell the party what he noticed or smelled or saw because his character hates that side of himself. The RP field is ripe when you can tie a monster/creature to a particular and accessible culture others can “imagine” from a variety of sources with depth–even if you tweak that. That Orcish warband, without those references, straight out of the book? Kill ’em all. One like this, with context that the PC’s can “get”? Makes the raiding party make sense as to why one or two might be very young–possibly barely into puberty–and make it hard to know whether they should kill ’em all or not. Reason with them? Spare them? The moral quandry makes for interesting game. One game I had, the Cleric (who spoke Orcish) ended up sparing one of the young orcs and fought long and hard with the struggling thing, speaking in a pitiful Southern accent in real life (to represent the language being spoken) and it just biting and fighting and struggling to get away while shouting the most hateful crap an ignorant little redneck parody could. They let him run off in the end, and took off in the other direction.
  4. This spin gives things like the Eye of Grumsh some possible flavor beyond “spell casting Orc”. Now they can fill the role of something like an Orcish/fantasy version of that lead character in Red State… a smart (very smart), devoted, hateful priest of dark purpose. Not crazy. Not as bestial as his cousins–all fighting and testosterone–but thoughtful, and intend on making this place/land/whatnot pure. Purge the deviants. Kill the “sinners”. After several encounters with rampaging and reckless Orcs, the encounter with the one Eye leading them freaked out my players. It’s like fighting off wolves every night and then one night while you wait for them to all rush in like always, they stand at the treeline as one in the center eyes you knowingly… and silently turns and nods at two, that go circling around the sides, and then to a few on the other side it nods to them and they start walking toward you and it stands staring at you and seemingly smiling. Freaking terrifying. And for anyone speaking Orcish, the things it says are equally chilling–prayers and citing passages of some religious history or whatnot in the most perverse ways. Always smiling. Always serious. They’re used to Orcs rushing in like animals, they now see how dangerous it is when animals are tightly trained and tethered to a leader.
  5. This is largely how I run my Orcs. It offers me a way to RP them into more normal, non-combat situations in a way that makes them make sense. They’d be the surly, angry thing in the market pushing people away from itself–because these city ways… all these dirty creatures around it… it just hates all of it and what it all represents. It helps give footing to why they might pass a party by–things that bow and scrape away or put up with the taunting and minor roughing up? Let ’em live. Who cares? Parties that push back? Fight back? Now the rumble is on. Very tempermental. Alcoholism is very common. Wild rages are common. They’re easily (very easily) tempted and turned to particular evil causes (easy to whip up into outrages). But, to be sure, they’re not stupid, they’re the perfect model of ignorance and isolation. I like to think Orcs are as smart as anything, but surviving Orcish culture means (if you’re smart) finding steel quick and being ready to headbutt your cousin and break their nose when he makes a joke before anyone thinks you’re weak.
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2 comments

  1. Love these! Phenomenal blog!

    Don’t know what monster you’re considering writing up next but here are some I’d like to see: Gnolls, Bugbears, Doppelgangers, Kobolds – maybe even Genies and/or Illithids (just to see how you distinguish them from Dragons RP-wise). Throw in the entire MM while you’re at it 😉

    Also, what’s your take on Fiends and Undead? Generally I’ve found running Undead tends to be a little more boring than I anticipate and introducing Fiends (which I find really cool in theory) tends to convolute my campaign or make it too demon-centric, if that makes sense.

    Do you DM consult? I think I’d pay for your take on some of my DM-related questions. I don’t even think I’m joking.

    Liked by 1 person

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