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?
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