What the Orks Want

orksOrks.

The mainstay of every early fantasy campaign levels 1-3.

Orks have a Challenge Rating of a measly 1/2. Thematically, they lurk outside peaceful peasant villages waiting patiently for young Murder Hobos armed with starter equipment and early game cantrips to kill them.  They hide on the first floors of dungeons gazing with adoration upon the visage of their leader, that early level Boss Monster, the Ogre, and guard crates of down market rusty swords and the occasional health potion.  They fill a crucial hole in the fantasy genre milieu: they act evil, look ugly, die easy and grant adventurers enough gold and experience to level up to fight more interesting monsters.

Is that all?

Do the Orks have a greater reason for their existence? Or, are they merely story filler like so many fantasy packing peanuts surrounding the nugget of the interesting stuff?  Do the Orks have their own lives, their own motivations, their own cultures, and their own raison d’etre?  Do they have a deeper motivation that leads them, inevitably, to hanging around towns waiting for slaughter at the hands of level 1 Warlocks and Sorcerers?

What do the Orks want?

To Be Evil

“Evil” is the least interesting, and most common, of the possible options for Ork existence.  Orks are evil and, like all evil creatures, deserve what is coming to them (so says the alignment chart). They pillage and destroy with no greater thought to motivation or higher purpose.  They delight in open havoc.  They kill innocent town people indiscriminately, cause problems for local landowners, and make a mess.  They’re essentially animals, but not the cute, fluffy animals.  They’re the ugly animals.  Vermin.

The common Ork is no different from the common black plague sewer rat, except it’s armed with a tetanus-covered sword and wears rotting armor.  Orks attack when approached, they ravage because they can, and the world is better off without them.  Young Murder Hobos aren’t killing Orks for their higher-level drops, XP, and replacement arrows: Young Murder Hobos are doing the world a service.

These Orks don’t have names.  They don’t have personalities. They don’t have hopes, dreams and aspirations.  They’re fantasy filler. These Orks have no plan or strategy except to hook up with some bigger creature, like the mini-Boss Ogre, and kill.

Evil for no other purpose than being evil is rarely interesting.  Okay, they’re evil. They drop standard treasure.  Roll to hit, then roll on the table, and then move on.

To Make Cash

Orks are a self-interested kind of evil.  No one hangs around outside towns or on the first floor of dungeons with some smelly Ogre for fun.  Someone is paying the Orks, and paying them enough to not only stand the infinite boredom of waiting for the young Murder Hobos to come along, but to get slaughtered at their hands when they finally arrive.  Hiring bands of Orks isn’t cheap. Someone is getting a decent rate of return on the investment for their goals.

Let’s ask a few questions about their cash:

  • Why do Orks want money?
  • What do Orks buy?  Arms?  Equipment?
  • Do Orks send the money back home to their villages?
  • Who is hiring the Orks?
  • And for what purpose?

If the Orks get paid, and they are not all blowing the cash on booze and magic items, then a certain percentage of Orks take their cash and return home after a fixed period. A fresh regiment comes in from the Ork villages to relieve them.  This implies an at-home level of military preparedness and organization not seen out of a standard CR 1/2 monster.  This also implies the Orks the young Murder Hobos encounter during their introductory adventures are not the tip-top elite of Ork military regiments but are also untrained military volunteers working in the pay of someone else.

From a point of view, these Orks are themselves young, low-level Murder Hobos in the pay of some other, opposing, and possibly evil Quest Giver.

And who pays the Quest Giver to grant Ork quests, encourage Orks to burn villages, and give rewards to these mercenaries? The same local landowner who originally sent out the party to kill Orks.  Perhaps this landowner puts on a great show of military force demonstrating to the local peasants that, if they pay their taxes, he’ll hire mercenaries to keep them safe. But, if the peasants don’t pay up, he will stop hiring Murder Hobos (whom he hired) to clear out the ravaging Orks (whom he also hired).

And those few Orks who escape the ravaging, death-wielding Murder Hobos?  They flee home to put food on the table and buy small niceties for their village while the next team ventures out into the horrible, dark, and deadly world of Men, Dwarves and Elves.

Should the PCs seek it, a route exists for monetary negotiation between Murder Hobos and Orks.  If they both compare notes they’ll see they’ve both been used. This is if, and only if, Murder Hobos see Orks for something beyond an XP and equipment drop.

Justice and Vengeance

In the dark times before Men and Halflings settled this land, Orks lived here in quiet villages.  They farmed this land and tilled this soil and grew bounties of wheat.  They built these dungeons to inter their highly honored dead and keep their places sacred.

Then, men came with their conquering armies. Men built cities and roads and imposed their idea of order.  Some Orks gave in to the invader’s demands hoping to protect their people. Many Orks, outraged at the invader’s incursions into their lives and cultures, rose up in revolt. Villages joined villages and formed a huge horde.  Lead by a great female Ork General, the Orks ravaged and destroyed the countryside.  They burned Man’s brand new villages and cities.   They marched to Man’s newest and greatest trading entrepot and tore it down until not a single building stood. In their anger, they left no women or children alive.

The invaders, outraged, mobilized their armies from every part of the conquered Ork country.  Orks faced Men on an open plain on the other side of a river in a huge conflagration.

And the Orks died.  They never had a chance.

Men subjugated the Orks and then, slow at first and then faster, pushed the Orks off their ancestral lands to the far off swamps and into the high hills.  They stripped the Orks of their ancestral farmland and gave it to men.  Men razed Ork villages and built their own where the Ork villages once stood. They raided the Ork burial chambers for magic items and armor upgrades and dumped the desecrated Ork King skeleton on to the floor.

Victors write the Histories.  All Murder Hobos know, centuries later, are Orks come from the swamps and hills, are evil, and they must destroy them or else all of humanity is at risk.

The Orks launch invasions of villages from their marginalized existence to wrest back what was once theirs.  They invade dungeons to right their ancient wrongs, and take mini-bosses with them to kill any who try to stop them.

Meanwhile, Quest Givers give Murder Hobos quests to slaughter the Orks for dark political purpose – keep the Orks subjugated and away from our farmland.  The Orks, the Quest Givers say in their comfortable corner pubs, attack the local people. They’re burning our crops.  They’re harassing our travelers.  Please kill them and in exchange here’s 400gp and a +1 long sword.

Don’t you want to be a hero?

To Settle and Farm

The Orks hail from a land where their current farmland is inadequate to feed their people.  The land is swampy and the rivers, polluted.  Whenever the Orks experience a bad season – and with bad land, they always experience bad seasons – their children die of starvation. Under population stress, the Orks send out military teams to probe the world of Men, Dwarves and Elves in search of good soil, decent drainage, and access to a good, clean water source.

When the Orks find a good place to farm, and not yet inhabited, they found a new village and move their farmers.  If the good place to farm is already inhabited, the Orks plot how they’re going to take the village.  To them, the current residents are simply in the way; the Orks need to feed their people.  Food is a greater motivator than glory or power or conquest.  Nothing else matters.

The Ork’s plan is one of pure land acquisition.  They attack the village and kill or drive off all the peasants within.  The invaders carefully keep the livestock alive and avoid burning the fields.  Once the village is secure, Ork farmers relocate from the swamp, take up the left-behind farming implements, and start working the land.  More and better land means more food and better survival for the Ork people.

Enlisting the occasional Orge or Bugbear in their armies of conquest provides a mutual benefit: the Orks use the raw muscle of a mini-Boss to help secure new farmland while the Ogre feeds on new and interesting creatures – deer, wild turkeys, the rare peasant.

To Men, the Orks are an obvious threat, a slow invasion, and a low-level guerilla war.  Orkish victories spread Ork villages outside of their historical boundaries and chip away at their human-held tax base.  Lords do not allow the slaughter of their people and the taking of their best land to stay unanswered.  Send out the Murder Hobos.   After all, Orks are only CR 1/2 creatures.

Slaughter the Orks, the local magistrates tell the Murder Hobos, and we will grant you 400gp and this +1 long sword.

The young Murder Hobos, not caring much about the plight or motivations of the Ork people, and highly self-motivated to level past level 3 where they access their interesting spells, pick up their swords and kill them for their XP.

This quiet guerilla war between Men and Ork continues until either the Orks can feed all their successfully people, or men decide it’s time to end the hassle and take the war to the ancestral home Ork villages.  Suddenly Quest Givers offer the level 3 Murder Hobos quests sending them into the swamps to clear out “Ork bases” and destroy “Ork leaders.”

The Orks will assuredly retaliate.

To Build Empire

Everyone has built a nation for the safety and well-being of their people while enriching themselves.  Elves with their great sprawling cities of gold and forest-based civilizations.  Men with their feudalistic countries.  Dwarves dwelling under the mountain.  Halflings and their peaceful settled shires of rolling hills and fields of black loam.

The Orks hail from the uninhabitable steppes where they form strong clan structures around family and village. They are a highly mobile people focused on hunting and herding, going where their animals go and following the contours of an infinite, featureless land.  Their culture has a strong druidic component connecting the Orks with their herd animals and the herd animals with the land.

Orks were a nothing people with no past and no future.  They were easy to ignore except by the occasional traveling Murder Hobos. Until one day a strong, charismatic clan leader arose and united the clans into one Ork People.  He found the other natural leaders among the clans and made them his Generals.  With their Gods at their side, the Druids calling down the sky, and their skill in high mobility and hunting, the Orks began forcing other peoples and clans into their fold.

Their one clan grew into an army.

The charismatic leader has a vision of one world Empire for his people.  He’s not certain how big the world is – in his mind, the steppe is infinite so the world itself is infinite – or who lives in it or how they live or how they worship.  But that does not stop him, for his people are great hunters and herders and are one with the horses and the land.  The only way to find out how big an Empire can get is to build it.

So he does.

The settled villages of men cared little for this development in the distant, far-off steppe. Until, one day, the Orks appeared and began burning villages, looting nearby dungeons and forcing captives back to the steppe to serve the new Ork Emperor.  Peasants are no match for even CR 1/2 creatures.

A panicked call goes out for young Murder Hobos.  Come destroy these weird and horrible creatures attacking our peasants and camping in our nearby dungeons. The Murder Hobos do so. The quest executes as written.  Orks murdered.  Bodies rolled for their stuff. Villages saved!

Yet these Orks burning far-flung villages are not the main bulk of the Empire’s army.  They are scouts probing and sending back reports on defenses.  The true army, the dangerous army, is a world away with thousands of armed Orks laying siege to isolated, culturally remote golden Elven cities.  And when those cities fell, the Orks sacked the buildings. They moved in and began ruling over these Elves. They assimilated Elven understanding into their own Empire.

Should the Murder Hobos follow-up on the origins of the Ork menace, they will discover a lengthy road trip ahead of them. One that leads the Murder Hobos through danger and foreign lands and on to the steppes and to lands where no one speaks their language or understands their geography or knows their Gods. And then, once reaching the steppe’s heart and seeing a completely foreign world of the Ork’s Empire which unites the lands, fuses cultures, and makes the roads safe for travelers, while simultaneously leaving devastation in its wake, the Murder Hobos must decide: do they fight or do they join?

Coda

Generic evil for the sake of being evil is boring.  The most banal and dull of demi-humans benefit from a bit of motivation, incentives, history and background.   Why are the Orks in the dungeon?  What do they get out of being in the dungeon?  Did they come from a village?  How is that village?  Can the PCs learn anything about this culture while killing things and looting their stuff?  Maybe they have something and the local magistrates want it more?

No one is what they seem and everything has little pull-able threads that unravel into a tapestry of background, story, and tale.

Or maybe the Murder Hobos only want to roll bad guys and take their stuff.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames

Comments

  1. This is really fantastic. One of my favorite parts of 13th Age is being able to tie in Orcs (or Kobolds, etc.) with icons/iconic factions and the emphasis on story. I especially like the idea of using the empire you proposed as a way to do an Orc Lord-based story where it starts off with some basic Orc fights that then make people remember that oh yeah, he’s an icon. Maybe it’s just the stuff I’ve run across, but I think he’s underutilized for some of the reasons you laid out here. Or perhaps he’s overutilized, but only for notes about these low-level encounters and not as focus.

  2. Orcs are a sort of people and, as such, they are products of their environment. The easiest way to explain them is that they live in the harshest, most terrible conditions. In such a place, they cannot afford to feed, cloth and coddle even the meekest among them– there just aren’t enough survival resources to go around. It’d even be a waste because the meekest aren’t likely to survive the harsh weather or toxic conditions or poor quality of the food.
    Instead, there is only enough for the fittest of them to survive. Not simply the fittest, but those with the aggression to take what they need at every opportunity without hesitation or remorse. Thus they struggle among each other to ensure that the most fit survives and passes the genes on to make the next generation even hardier than the current– much like wolves and lions.
    This means they aren’t evil for being evil, but rather they are what we define evil (aggressive, opportunistic, selfish, merciless and brutal) because unless they were precisely that they never had a chance to survive in the environments they were bred and born into. Likely there were plenty of Orcs who naturally tended to altruistic, but if they were the ones living deep in those darkened caverns where the only food source is lichen, bugs and creatures that can easily kill you, the ones living in the frozen mountains where nothing grows save a couple months a year and a night up there would give a human severe frostbite, the ones in the blasted desert where sandstorms tear down anything one might make or build within days, the ones living in the toxic swamp where going out to gather likely means being eaten by a crocodile or worse… they died horrible, terrible deaths that made them examples for anyone who would be so dense and foolish to act in such a way.
    Imagine then that these people whose only method to see the next sunrise is to take everything they can from those who cannot hold onto it and eat whatever is available come out onto the lands of humans who own far more than they can carry or guard, create these giant fields of food that they just leave out there for most of the year until fall and gorge themselves on what they made last year. And the whole lot of them are far too weak and fragile to survive one week in what the Orcs have lived through all their existences. A people who by every definition you have been raised on are unfit to survive, and there certainly isn’t any reason you shouldn’t take what they have for your own as you deserve it far more.
    Then it becomes quite clear why the Orcs are stealing the crops and livestock, why they rob every lightly guarded merchant caravan to take the abundance of goods, why they run into the villages and plunder everything they want, cutting down anyone who stands in their way. Because this is the way of life, really the only possible way of life, in the places they are from. And it is also why they are so difficult to deal with, reason with or keep a peace with. Because even if one got them to comprehend that there is enough to go around that the benefit of everyone cooperating outweighs the drawback of using resources on people who might never accomplish anything or survive on their own, there is no real guarantee that such a condition is anything more than a passing phase that will end. You may convince a few stray individuals, but likely not so many.
    But, I guess after you win enough wars with them the survivors might begin to get clued in that the victorious peoples might be doing something right and thus to abandon their ways and get integrated into the human society. But it would still be tough.

  3. Personally, I’ve gravitated to the idea that orcs are young. If an orc’s lifespan works about four times as fast as a humans (like dog years), then an orc would be considered an adult at the age of about 5. The young orc warrior has a body like a grown man’s, hormones like a teenager, and a kindergartner’s sense of his own mortality.

    Basically, they want what everybody else wants, but their ability to get it through non-violent means is seriously limited by ignorance and terrible discipline. They learn about as fast as humans, but that only means that in their old age they can aspire to the wisdom of a human 20-year old.

    The more thoughtful humans are incredibly glad that orcs exist, because otherwise the elves and dwarfs would be looking at them.

    • That’s usually the excuse given for goblins behavior. Although 5x is considerably more accelerated even for a goblin. Goblins are usually 2-3x as fast, but everything else pretty much falls in line with what you were saying. When you are dealing with an “adult” goblin, you are dealing with a 10-year old who was raised by rebellious teenager anarchists. And even the rare goblin who makes it to old age is really in their mid to late twenties intellectually and emotionally.

      I guess you can do the same for Orcs, but then you lose some differentiation and it is probably best to differentiate them as much as you can. Unless you go a totally different direction with gobbos.

  4. If I were to suggest you are wrong about orks (or orcs) Having no history, it would be that ork sounds a lot like the protoindoeuropean phonetic ruk which if I recall means ‘to scrape/to injure’. A word used often to build other words about rough fighting or sand storms. As a people are the words they speak, I would suggest they are a people beyond the edge of human civilization who fight to survive and live in a harsh land.

  5. Les Hendrix says:

    Prelude to an Empire: Climate Change. Good summers, more food, more baby orcs quickly maturing into hungry, rowdy teen orcs, populating faster than other species. Get these damn ork teen punks out of the village, they threaten the stability and established leadership of the village. They need a place to act like orks, but not in my village. Let’s pay the charismatic gang leader to lead a bunch of hungry orks towards the land of tasty delicacies, with a holy book “How to Serve Humans, Elves and Dwarves.” The humans at least know how to produce food, to work a field and tend animals, so keep a few of them around.

  6. silver Harloe says:

    That last one made me think of the Mongols in big way. Except for the horses. Maybe my orcs will have horses to make the transition complete.

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