Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Orcs are a Disease, a look at the Little Brown Book Orc.


Disney's  to Blame/Thank for the Pig Nosed Orc
I was reading through the Little Brown Books, yesterday, specifically  from the 6th edition of the Dungeons and Dragons “White Box”, which still has the 1974 copyright (but came out later) and the strange combination of absurd detail, messy layout and bizarre inexplicable rules that mark it as an idiosyncratic hobby project, rather than something designed for a sophisticated market.  Specifically I was flipping through “Volume 2 of Three Booklets” (see idiosyncratic) – Monsters & Treasure, and came across the paragraphs about orcs.
It’s worth noting that many of the monster entries in Monsters & Treasure are minimal, i.e the 30 word entry for “cavemen”, the “Orcs” entry is not and takes up almost a full page (the longest entry is for “Dragons” and takes up almost two and a half pages).  Going with the idea that monster manuals are de-facto setting books, and that what inhabits a setting defines it, orcs seem clearly to matter in the world of the LBB’s, and are certainly one of the most iconic monsters of table-top fantasy games.  They’re also famously badly defined, even if popular culture currently understands them as some sort of WOW derived noble savage version of the Warhammer universe “Greenskin” (a fine bit of fantasy worldbuilding there both in Warhammer and Warhammer 40K)

Yet, what does Monsters & Treasure imply about setting with its specific Orcs, having been written at a time when really the only model for the creatures was J.R.R Tolkiens anti-elves, or perhaps (no not really) Blake’s Promethean spirit of creativity.  The LBB describes Orcs as follows:

ORCS: The number of different tribes of Orcs can be as varied as desired.  Once decided upon, simply generate a random number whenever Orcs are encountered, the number generated telling which tribe they belong to, keeping in mind inter-tribal hostility.  When found in their “lair” it will either be a cave complex (die 1-4) or a village (die 5-6).  The cave complex will be guarded by sentries.  A village will be protected by a ditch and palisade defenses, 1 light catapult per 50 Orcs, and a high central tower of some kind. Orcs found in a cave will possibly have strong leader protector types , as will those in villages:
                                                             Cave Complex                                   Village
7th – 9th level Fighting Man                        Nil                                         25%/100 Orcs
11th Level Magic User                                Nil                                         10%/100 Orcs
Dragon                                                  10%/100 Orcs                                      Nil
1 – 6 Ogres                                           10%/50 Orcs                                15%/50 Orcs
1 – 4 Trolls                                           10%/100 Orcs                                       Nil

Orcs will defend their lair without morale checks until they are outnumbered by 3 - 1.
If fought other than in their lair Orcs may be escorting a wagon train of 1-8 wagons.  There is a 50% chance for this.  Each wagon will be carrying from 200 – 1,200 Gold Pieces.  Wagon trains will have additional Orcs guarding them, 10 per wagon, and be lead by either a Fighting-Man (die 1 = Champion, die 2-4 = Super-hero, die 5-6 = Lord) or Magic-User (die 1 = Sorcerer, die 2-4 = Necromancer, die 5,6 = Wizard), 50% chance for either (die 1-3 = fighter, die 4-6 = magical type.)
Note that is Orcs are encountered in an area which is part of a regular campaign map their location and tribal affiliation should be recorded, and other Orcs located in the same general area will be of the same tribe.

Orcs do not like full sunlight, reacting as do Goblins.  They attack Orcs of different tribes on sight unless they are under command of a stronger monster and can score better than 50% on an obedience check (4-6 with a six-sided die for example).
It should be noted that these LBB orcs appear in groups of 30 – 300 and are in their lair 50% of the time.

The above page of a zine style booklet is all we have to go on for what an LBB orc might be, and unless one wants to pull in other sources, it paints a pretty odd picture.  What does the Monsters and Treasure description suggest about the Orc and its place in the default campaign world of the LBBs?  A few things that stand out for me are:

1)              Orcs are tribal – it’s noted a lot in even the short description that orcs live in tribes, and how it’s worth keeping track of these tribes.  This is not something noted for goblins (maybe in chainmail?), hobgoblins or gnolls who simply have a tougher local “king” in each lair.
2)            Orcs are homogenous - Orc tribes aren’t ruled by orcs, they are led by powerful warriors, wizards or monsters, but are a homogeneous body of monsters otherwise.  It’s possible that the warrior and wizard leaders of orcs are orcs themselves, but this seems unlikely given that humanoid kings are routinely mentioned in the LBB’s other examples of humanoids.
3)            Orcs aren’t completely uncivilized – they (1/3 of the time) build villages and have technological defenses, such as catapults. Even the more common cave dwelling orc  post sentries,
4)            Orcs like to fight and have strong animosities towards other orcs – The orc tribe will attack other orcs, seemingly more readily then they will attack anyone else, and often even against the urging of their overlords. Likewise they will defend their homes far past sanity (until outnumbered 3 to 1).
5)            Orcs are like humans, but off - Orcs don’t like sunlight, but are otherwise equivalent to humans with leather armor and shields (or with chain armor). Yet orcs don’t have a force composition like actual human encounters (nomads & bandits) and don’t seem to employ missile troops.  They have some rudiment of tactics (guards, sentries, caravans) but the only weapons they use at range are catapults, while the rest of them are strictly melee fighters.
6)            Orcs travel with wagons filled with treasure or goods – Wandering orcs aren’t just gallivanting about, hunting or out on a raid, half the time they are escorting wagons filled with treasure, often at least as much treasure as is found in their lairs, and are always accompanied by very powerful leaders at these times.  This suggests either trade or expansiveness – presumably these orc caravans are on their way to set up a new tribal offshoot somewhere, or fleeing a lair that has been threatened (not attacked, because they don’t flee or surrender very easily).  The other possibility is of course nomadic orc tribes, not wagons so much as gers and tents packed as the orc band follows some kind of planned route (of course there is no mention of orc cavalry, so presumably these ‘wagons’ are pulled by orcs themselves).

Mechanically LBB orcs are strange, they are driven by a violent hatred of other orcs, afflicted as a race with both a universal sameness and a willingness/need to work for stronger creatures and yet neither foolish or tactically unwise.

Sure, pig faced, militaristic, barbarian humanoids is the general answer here.  Ravening, almost elemental forces of destruction and avarice unleashed is an equally popular view, but the first of these is boring and leaves some elements of the description unexamined (why the human and monster leaders?), and the second doesn’t really work for these creatures that seem to be both very tractable (nothing suggests that the Lords an Wizards ruling these orc villages/caravans are always evil) and tend to be homebodies, within their own little tribal regions rather than raiders, travelling in ordered caravans.

Evil cave dwelling elf things is also a possibility if one wishes to hove close to Tolkien (and the orcish need for servitude seems to suggest this ), but is unsatisfying as it doesn’t offer any real evocative reason for the homogeneity of orcs.

In the past Tolkien scholars have suggested that the orc is some sort of symbolic representation of the enemy (or less charitably Germans) as seen from the perspective of a World War One era soldier (Tolkien was a WW1 veteran) – a homogeneous mass that seems subhuman, incomprehensible and relentlessly deadly.  The orc then could be the fantasy embodiment of modern (20th century at least) warfare, where individual men are reduced to the thralls of the war machines (both literal and political) that command them.   Likewise orcs could be a colonialist stand in for colonized peoples who seek to resist the inevitable “progress” offered by the colonizer.   I don’t fully accept this version of orcs though, either as a view of Tolkien’s, or as an interesting way of reading the LBB orc (it’s pretty ugly and not fun all around).  Gygax certainly isn’t shy about putting evil men (bandits, buccaneers and pirates) into the game as enemies, nor is he reluctant to put in foreign peoples (in the form of dervishes and nomads) or humans lacking technological culture (cavemen) on the monster list.  Orcs aren’t even just soldiers driven mad by war, the sort of nihilistic marauding mercenary psychopath created by prolonged conflicts from the 100 years war  to pre-Taliban Afghanistan.  General Buck Naked, Yoshio Tachibana, Tilly’s mercenaries and all the other blood crazed, war maniacs of history are however on the Little Brown Books’ monster list - in the form of Berserkers. 

Orcs are something different then these, something worth considering and incorporating into a setting with more care then the devotion to simple genre clichés.

Orcs are men and women, corrupted by magical disease, generally known as the “Orc Blight” and transformed into something both lesser and greater than the individuals they once were.  The physical symptoms of the blight suggest a charitable source of the ailment, as once afflicted a person becomes steadily healthier, stronger and resistant to other ailments until they peak near the normal human maximum for health and physical ability.  The only physical side effect of the Orc Blight is a susceptibility to bright light, but this is hardly debilitating, given the advantages the disease provides.  Orcs then look like humans, very fit humans, with a few minor symptoms (alopecipa or excessive hair, strange eye colors, pallor, boney growths and horns) that very depending on the strain of Blight involved, but all share a certain slackness of affect that marks them as lacking fundamental humanity.
Also perhaps Orcs - Guildwars 2 Promotional Material I Think

Beyond the generally positive physical effects, the Orc Blight is much much worse, at least from the perspective of  most humans, as it opens the minds portals to a gestalt consciousness  where individual will and mind is almost entirely lost, submerging within an ocean that contains the thoughts and goals of all others afflicted with the same strain of Orc Blight.   The orc gestalt is human in many ways, wanting safety and plenty, and willing to kill or fight to obtain it.  The individual lost within it however, now fully an “orc”, is a docile appendage of the disorganized gestalt mind, capable of acting intelligently only when the greater mind focuses its attention on him as a temporary leader or agent.  Otherwise the orc is a docile enough pack creatures, content to meet its own needs simply, affectionate and peaceable amongst others of its gestalt, but capable of vicious territoriality when confronted with outsiders.   This may be an unintended consequence of the Blight’s efforts to improve humanity’s mental powers as it does the physical, or it may be the intentional effect of the creator who wished a tractable populace.  Indeed orcs are usually happy to take direction from a strong leader, in a way that seems almost contrary to the baser elements of the human spirit that usually predominate it. 

Orc gesalts continue to operate much in the same way that the human societies they replace did, though specialization and craft sink to a functional, but lower level, as expertise is a diffuse understanding of many things, and individual artistry is lost.  Every orc can farm (if the gesalt contained farmers), every orc can work metal (assuming there were metal workers amongst the gesalt’s sample population and every orc can build, mine, craft or hunt with the skills of a not especially inspired or competent member of the craft.   An orc gestalt is generally willing to negotiate, though it has little understanding of individual value and tends to address threats by throwing waves of orcs at them until they are dead, flee or force the orcs to flee.  Likewise orcs tend towards expansionism, as their populations grow quickly, both by natural reproduction and forced conversion of captives (the Blight cannot be passed on at birth, but who ingests a suitable amount of orc blood or milk will likely contract the disease).     

While the natural culture of an orc gestalt is placid enough, slowly spreading and sending out new tribal colonies (in the form of great wagon trains) when they grow too far or too fast for local resources, a singular great hatred animates orc tribes, the hatred of all orcs resulting from a different strain of Blight.  Perhaps orc gestalt’s cannot see non-gestalt entities as threats, or perhaps the magical disease itself was created by competing factions, but whatever the cause the animosity between blight tribes is so great that even powerful leaders can rarely hold them back from violent aggression.  This factor alone inhibits the spread of the Orc Blight as more orcs cannot be infected from those already afflicted with the Blight, and the endless total war between orc tribes generally keeps orc numbers down and the gestalt consciousness occupied.


  1. you hit one out of the park with this, HOMERUN

  2. Very interesting analysis and take on it.

  3. Very nice analysis!

    What if, perhaps, the Orc Blight is a fungus, like the fungus that can "animate" dead ants? The fungus suppresses the victim's individuality but picks up on the basal skill levels and basic emotions. Leader-types are also orcs, in such cases, being strong enough to maintain their high skill levels and perhaps being a "central nerve complex" for the overall fungus, which operates on a telepathic level beyond the comprehension and use of the common orc (save to project the hatred of other Orc Blight varieties).

    So instead of a Zombie Apocalypse, a fantasy world could have an Orc Apocalypse... with non-transformed survivors being immune to the Orc Blight (at least, those in the first generation to survive were, not so sure of their adventuring descendants...)

  4. I always enjoy these types of look into the setting implied by the original rules. Two other data points for OD&D orcs. In Vol 1, they are listed with not just the forces of Chaos, but also Neutrality. So they are not necessarily "evil" as in later rulesets - this fits with one of your comment above. And in Vol 3, there are prices for hiring Orc Men-At-Arms (Light Foot, Heavy Foot or Archers), plus it says "Chaotic characters may wish to employ Orcs; Orc support and upkeep is only half that of a man".

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, I noticed the support and upkeep thing today actually after posting this - but for me it all kinda leads to the key point above: LBB Orcs are weird.

  5. I thought you were leading up to the conclusion that orcs were some kind homunculi engineered as a labour solution for those who valued subservience in their workforce the obvious reference would be the Isengard scenes in LotR. The antipathy to other brands of orcs then would've be considered a feature not a quirk.

    The disease concept works as well if not better of course. The Yellow Dawn RPG has a similar idea of orc as a pathogen.

    Love your stuff :)

    The disease concept works as

  6. Interesting idea. The notion that different strains of Orc Blight produce different tribes might be useful to describe physical differences; different strains of Orc Blight make the sufferers grow tusks, snout-like noses, become more hairy, become bald and pale, acquire grey, black or muddy-brown skins, etc.

    Rather than German soldiers or colonial peoples in Tolkien, however, I think in general the Orcs represent the lower classes. Then again, I think the idea of Zombies in a lot of popular culture refers to the idea of the lower classes too.

    In Anne McCaffrey's 'Pern' books there is a class of people called 'Drudges' who (as far as I remember, it's decades since I read them) are portrayed as being fairly docile, uncreative and bred for servitude. Perhaps the creator(s) of the Orc Blight were going for some similar idea - a 'labour solution' as Chris Potter suggests. The Orc Blight could be essentially a will-sapping curse designed to produce efficient slaves.

    It could be that different strains of Orc Blight were produced at different times (refinements to an original strain) or by different groups (competing mage-clans searching for the perfect slaves) or the pathogen may be highly unstable, producing frequent mutations. The 10-80 Orcs escorting the wandering wagons may be the 'mutants' (didn't turn hairy, grew great brow-ridges instead, could only partake in gestalt consciousness with each other on reaching adulthood) setting out to form a new colony far from the existing Orcs.

  7. Totally stealing this for my 5e game... Absolutely fantastic!

  8. Modify this however you like folks (fungal parasites, magical pod people) - for me I think I will use this idea as a way to explain the 'worker' populations of moribund factorial hives in Fallen Empire. The Blight being a engineered arcane disease that the (mostly extinct or lichified) wizard who once controlled the Imperial factories used to keep workforce loyal and properly motivated. The factor towers are huge pylons of spun alchemical ceramic (bonewhite) and phlogiston resin, now crumbling with age. They're often packed with the Blighted and worse (sometimes the spoiling magic within makes the population full ghouls), even when they are still under some sort of control by the generations of apprentices.

  9. This is the most fundamentally satisfying contribution to the field of Orcology that I have ever read. Consider it poached.

  10. Very cool analysis and very interesting idea! Historically, there were 4 different tribes of orcs in Arneson's Blackmoor campaign and each tribe had different stats and habits. "Isengarder" Orcs had the palisaded villages and wagon trains. There were also mountain fortress orcs and dungeon orcs (red eye). See FFC 77:89