Orcs in Dungeons & Dragons

Todd Kenreck: Orcs are one of my favorite creatures in any fantasy setting. They have become such a big part of so many different universes. Today I'm talking to Mike Mearls about the orc's place in the D&D Multiverse.

Mike Mearls: Orcs in D&D have for a very long time occupied the sort of generic bad guy slot. They've undergone a real change visually over the years. They started out as these pig-faced guys, and then they kind of, in third edition, morphed into almost these simian-looking guys, they had some gorilla elements added to their look. We've kind of kept that, essentially, in place. We wanted to get across the idea that these guys are big and strong and brutish, and very much have a hierarchy based on strength. Orcs, the classic idea of the 800-pound gorilla that runs things, okay, that's orc society, right? The Orcs are the strongest rule, and if you want to prove you're the strongest, beat up the guy who's ruling, and now you get to rule.

So, it's very much a culture founded on strength, and it's a culture that's built in the image of Gruumsh, the deity who created the Orcs. We don't ... and I'm sure we have a story for it, but it's not coming to mind, a story of how Gruumsh created the Orcs, but we do know that they were essentially created to mimic him in the sense of, to Gruumsh, strength is everything. The strong should rule. And he is incredibly powerful. He fought Corellon, and almost killed him. He was the first thing that Corellon was ever afraid of, was Gruumsh, his just raw fury and power.

Now, Gruumsh's drawback is, he's not very clever. He can be. I mean, he's not dumb, but he's not the most creative deity. He's not the most ... He's not really clever, but that's really where Luthic comes in. In a lot of ways, I think of Luthic as being the real power, because the real strength of the Orcs ... The Orcs would tell you that their strength is that they're strong. They can bash down everything. But when you look at the sort of history of the Orcs, they really have had trouble creating empires.

There are the Many-Arrows Orcs on the Spine of the World mountains on the Sword Coast, and they've had some success, but in a lot of ways, they had to go against what they traditionally, how they would have acted. They're just pure raiders and marauders. King Obould had to make changes in how the Orcs were approaching things, and that was not necessarily a change that was going to take forever, because the tradition is, you should be strong, you should beat everyone up, rather than try to operate as a kingdom, as Elves or Humans would understand it.

And so, their real strength isn't necessarily their brute strength, because they like to pick fights, and they keep picking fights until they lose. They are the guy who picks fight and wins, picks fight and wins, and doesn't have an end state of "I've beaten everyone," which means invariably, they pick the wrong fight and lose. And that's really where the truth strength of the Orcs comes in with Luthic, where she's the mother of the Orcs, and she is the one who helps guide them to recover.

I would say that the story of Orcs in D&D is, the Orcs will tell you it's our strength. We're the strongest, we wield the biggest axes, the biggest swords, the biggest hammers, and we fight, and we overcome, but I think when you actually look at them, it's their resilience, that they have made untold enemies across the years, and they keep coming back. And I think that's really a testament to the power of Luthic, and the teachings that she imparts to her followers amongst the Orcs.

I think of an Orc clan, or a tribe, or whatever they call themselves, that there's the warriors who go off, the impetuous young warriors who go running off to raid and maraud and get themselves killed eventually. Then there are the wiser Orcs who maybe survive a few raids, and actually understand how the world works, and they're the ones who are ensuring that the Orc clan actually survives for the next generation, and hold on. That maybe when the Elven kingdom is getting very aggressive in hunting down the Orcs, that's when we stop sending out raiding party. We send out a raiding party kind of knowing they're never coming back, so let's make sure that all the impetuous hotheads go out on that raiding party, and that they don't really have a way for the Elves to track them back to our home, so we will endure.

So, that's kind of what I think the interesting thing about Orcs, is: They have on one had the way they understand themselves, and then on the other hand, when you think of them cosmically, and the actual hierarchy of their gods, and their traits, it's two different things, and I always found that very interesting to think of.

There's this myth that part of the reason the Orcs have this anger, this aggression, is that the other gods tried to trick Gruumsh. They thought, if we all claim parts of the world, and we claim everything, we leave nothing for Gruumsh, there will be no space for him. We don't have to worry about him anymore. And when Gruumsh sees this, he pulls out his spear, and he gouges through the forest with it, and says, "The Elves have claimed the forest, well, I claim this portion of the forest." The Dwarves have claimed the mountains, and he stabs into the mountains with his spear and says, "This is what I claim for my people. We will fight for it, and we'll take what's owed to us."

And it's really that sort of cosmic event that still echoes down to today, in how the Orcs in a lot of ways view the world, that idea that it's "us versus them," and it's, our strength will carry us, but at the same time, we will endure. Whatever the world throws at us, we keep getting back up again.

Luthic is traditionally depicted as Gruumsh's wife, his consort, and she is in charge of childbearing, motherhood for the Orcs, the young. Usually in an Orc clan, the Orogs will serve the priestesses of Luthic. Usually it's priestesses, but it's not locked into place, it's more just the typical thing. The Orogs are stronger and smarter Orcs, and they kind of serve as that last line of defense, they protect the young. I've always felt with Luthic, there's a streak of violence that you find with Gruumsh. She has these enormously long talons, used to claw through the ground to create the caves that the Orcs live in, but also to claw her enemies. But I also think, it's really an anger and a violence that's propelled by her fundamental nature, the way she wishes to protect.

Gruumsh and Bahgtru and Ilneval, the other Orc deities, they're aggressive in the idea that we want to prove we're strong and we want to conquer. Luthic is strong and powerful and aggressive in order to protect. She really is the one element that keeps Orc society together, that stops it from just devolving into pure chaos, or just constant infighting. They're kind of basically the keepers of what order exists in a chaotic society.

We know cosmically that Maglubiyet is trying to conquer the Orc pantheon, and I think in a lot of ways, what would have been the deities of Goblins and Bugbears that were defeated by Maglubiyet, the Orcs probably would have suffered the same fate if it wasn't for Luthic. But that's the difference between why did the Orc pantheon survive, when the Goblin or Hobgoblin pantheon fell, and I think Luthic is the answer to that, that that streak of protection, aggression, but it is alloyed with this idea of protection and a very strong maternal instinct, is what has preserved them.




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