Your Campaign Setting Needs Orcs
My campaign settings don't usually have orcs in them. I typically think of them as lazy bad guys, because I assume that they're just bloodthirsty monsters that the player characters can kill without feeling guilty. But I assumed wrong.
Lately, I’ve been writing an adventure that involves a horde of orcs as the main villains. As research for this adventure, I looked back at all the media I've consumed that featured orcs. Lord of the Rings. Warcraft. Warhammer. The Elder Scrolls. I actually sat down and rewatched the extended edition of the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy in order to prepare to write this adventure. Orcs are such a quintessential fantasy bad guy, but as soon as I started writing, I came to the realization that I had no idea how to actually write orcs for D&D. I don't think I had ever actually included orcs in a D&D adventure before. I had always simply dismissed them out of hand.
So I read the Monster Manual. I read Volo's Guide to Monsters. And I was amazed.
The orcs of Dungeons & Dragons are completely distinct from the cowardly orcs I had seen in Lord of the Rings. They were utterly different from the fel-corrupted alien orcs of Warcraft. But what surprised me most was that I suddenly wanted to include orcs in my home campaign. Their story captured me. Orcs are more important to your D&D world than you realize. Even if you don’t plan on tying orcs into the main story or stories of your campaign, I urge you to include orcs in your campaign setting, and the lore of the D&D Multiverse makes it easy to do so.
What are D&D Orcs?
The Monster Manual describes orcs as “savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces [with gray skin] with prominent lower canines that resemble tusks.” This description is what initially surprised me, right after watching Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Those orcs were scrawny cowards, similar to goblins. They couldn’t stand sunlight, and could only travel by night—in D&D terms, these orcs had Sunlight Sensitivity, like a kobold or a drow. Only the uruk-hai, powerful orcs created by Sauron and Saruman’s magic could stand sunlight.
One could compare Tolkien’s orcs and uruk-hai to the orcs and orogs of D&D, but it’s still an imperfect comparison. D&D orcs more closely resemble the orcs of Warcraft, with their hunched poster, long tusks, and piggish faces—though the orcs of Faerûn have gray skin instead of the brown and green typically associated with the orcs of Draenor and Azeroth.
But these are just superficial differences. The orcs of Dungeons & Dragons possess two particular traits that make them stand out from most other popular depictions of orcs. Most importantly, they are free. The orcs of D&D are not controlled by a dark wizard like Sauron or Saruman. They are not a mindless army to be used and disposed at a whim. In Faerûn, orcs form their own nomadic clans, are ruled by their own kings, and cause chaos on their own terms. If anything, they are more like the goblins in The Hobbit, with their own lairs and rulers.
And yet, they are still slaves to their gods and the culture of cruel fanaticism those gods have created. Orcs are not bent towards chaos and evil because they are inherently evil creatures, but because the orcish gods prize chaos and evil over all other things. In Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are a fiercely religious folk. Their pantheon of gods plays a major role in orcish life—particular Gruumsh, lord of slaughter. Though, as Mike Mearls notes, Gruumsh’s wife Luthic, goddess of fertility, is the real power in the orcish pantheon.
“Here’s the thing, orcs act the way they are because that's the culture because there's a god—Gruumsh—who literally lives in the outer plains who tells them what to do and he has a plan. And then lurking behind Gruumsh is Luthic… and she has a smarter plan.”
Orcs are connected so closely to their pantheon that they are almost like a divine plague let loose upon the world. The Monster Manual even describes their clans as plague-like, as a tribe of creatures like bloodlust personified. But the truth is more complicated. If an orc is separated from its cruel gods and its society, it will not be inherently evil. Its evil is not in its blood, it is in what it is taught. Mike Mearls says, “But if you took an orc and raised it in human society, it would just be like a human. Obviously it would be orc biologically, but […] there's no reason why an orc couldn't be raised [that way].”
Why Use D&D Lore?
If you’re running your own campaign set in your own world, you may not want to use orcs as they are described in the Monster Manual, in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and in the upcoming book Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. You may have a cosmology that doesn’t include orcish gods like Gruumsh and Luthic. You may have a specific plan for the orcs in your story, or you may simply want to make them a standard player character race, like the orcs in The Elder Scrolls series, which are actually a type of elf known as the orsimer.
In most of my recent home campaigns, however, I had had no idea what to do with orcs. They must exist somewhere, because half-orcs exist as player character races, but I neither wanted to make orcs simply a subservient race to a more important villain—like they are in Lord of the Rings—nor did I want to elevate them to a position of cultural dominance, with their own cities and world-shaking plots—like in Warcraft. I just wanted orcs to have a tiny place in the world. The lore presented in Volo's Guide to Monsters served this purpose perfectly. I stole this lore for my home campaign and never looked back.
You Need a Force of Chaos
Every D&D world needs a force of chaos to prevent the great nations of the world from simply conquering your setting and filling all the corners of the map. Exploration is a core tenet of Dungeons & Dragons, and chaos that keeps the forces of order in check make it possible for the heroes to explore the untamed wilderness and long-lost dungeons. Orcs are one way of keeping civilization from pushing too deep into uncharted territory, or at least forcing the settlements in that territory from developing into major cities.
The lore established within the D&D multiverse is perfect for creating orcs as minor, regional threats. I drew upon the basic D&D idea of orcs being a wandering band of bloodthirsty killers when I was creating the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting with Matthew Mercer. By the time that the campaign setting book was being written, Vox Machina—the heroes of Critical Role—had already far surpassed facing orcs as a credible threat. They were facing down a conclave of dragons and undead godlings, not orc tribes. So something needed to be created whole cloth to give orcs a place in the world of Tal’Dorei. I created the Ravagers, a clan of orcs, goblins, and gnolls that caused chaos and bloodshed in the Dividing Plains, the wild heartland of the continent.
But that only scratched the surface of the story of orcs within D&D. They may be bloodthirsty murderers at their core, but D&D orcs have much greater forces surrounding them.
You Need the Power of the Gods
The power of the gods affects more than just clerics. Volo’s Guide to Monsters describes orcs as “The Godsworn.” Orcish society raises fanatical devotees. Orcs are a perfect way to introduce your characters to the power of gods beyond those that they worship. The orc gods do not directly interfere with orc society, but their teachings have stratified the orcs into castes, each with their own special type of monster. These unique orcs are not clerics, but they show that the power of the gods extends beyond granting spells to priests; they can be a cultural force unto themselves.
To get the full picture, you simply must read Volo's Guide. Its descriptions of orc gods, orc society, and orcish motivations are absolutely essential reading for any Dungeon Master. Additionally, most of these gods’ followers are represented by a stat block in Volo’s Guide. For example, the elite worshipers of Ilneval, the orcish god of war, manifest their devotion to Ilneval through the study of tactics and battle strategy. An orc blade of Ilneval can use their Ilneval’s Command ability to rally its allies. The disgusting orc Nurtured One of Yurtrus is a bloated, disease-ridden kamikaze warrior, rushing into battle to spread its plague with its foes.
You Need Half-Orcs
Half-orcs have to come from somewhere. If you have a player that wants to play as a half-orc, you should develop lore for the orcs of your world. Maybe even base it around the character class that your half-orc player has chosen, especially if they’re playing something other than the stereotypical half-orc barbarian. Are they a half-orc rogue? Perhaps their orcish parent was from a sinister clan that revered Shargaas the Night Lord over all other orc gods. A disciplined half-orc fighter or paladin may subconsciously remember some of the teachings of Ilneval the War Maker.
It should go without saying that you should integrate your characters into your campaign world, but going the extra mile will make your world feel richer. And with all the lore and monsters available to you in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, it’s easy to make a campaign world that feels richer without going to the effort of creating an orc culture of your own.
These Books are Here to Help You
Knowing how to save yourself effort is one of the most important part of being a Dungeon Master. When I created the Ravagers for the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, I knew I had to create something original that still reference the D&D source material—but I was writing for publication. While I intentionally created content that was similar to D&D lore, outright idea theft wasn’t something I had the luxury of doing.
You, however, are a Dungeon Master creating for a home game. You should steal every good idea you come across, and the ideas books like Volo's Guide are custom-made to fit into a D&D campaign. I encourage you to come up with your own ideas, but the D&D team has offered you so much good lore (paired with monsters, no less!) that it doesn’t make sense not to use it unless it directly conflicts with other story elements of your campaign setting. This is especially true if orcs aren’t the main focus of your story. Don’t torture yourself by trying to think of some good lore for your orcs if it’s not interesting or important to you. You can spend that energy on parts of your game that are more important to you.
The people making D&D are smart. They’re good storytellers. Make good use of the stories that they’ve created for your campaign. Your players don’t need to know that you didn’t come up with it yourself.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in a five-room apartment/dungeon in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two savage beasts, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.