[Let’s Read] Volo’s Guide to Monsters


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Life in the Tribe

As mentioned, orc society is based entirely around supporting constant, unending warfare, but warfare doesn’t just happen. A thousand and one practical considerations must be addressed.

For one, numbers. Orcs breed continuously to make up for the unending casualties. To orcs, this is a bothersome chore necessary for the tribe’s survival, and attraction doesn’t really factor into it, which helps explain all those hybrids running around. Orcs don’t pair-bond. Pregnant orcs are relieved of their duties only near the end of their pregnancies, and the resulting children are immediately surrendered to the cult of Luthic.

Orcs are considered to be adults at 12, and can live to be about 40, although they rarely make it past 25 before they’re done in by disease or battle. Luthic’s blessing can extend an orc’s lifespan, but Gruumsh doesn’t like when she does this, as he’s already rather uncomfortable with the level of influence she holds over his orcs.

Orc children are subjected to tests of strength from an early age. Those who don’t seem suited for warrior life are given over to the cults of Yurtrus and Shargass.

Raiding is a constant of life in orc war camps. In a prosperous region, raids may occur in shifts, with one band of warriors setting out just as the last band returns with spoils. The territory the orcs consider theirs is often far larger than any suspect, and any other humanoids in their zone of influence are at risk of attack. Orcs won’t assault heavily fortified positions directly - they’ll just waylay caravans and travelers as a sort of informal siege until the settlement does something stupid out of desperation and opens themselves up to attack.

The center of a war party is the war wagon. These vehicles act as the means to transport loot back to the tribe, as a banner to rally around in combat, as cover on the battlefield, and as a battering ram when the need for one arises. Most are looted, originally of human or dwarvish make and redecorated to suit its new owners. The wagon is drawn by the orcs themselves, something only the strongest can attempt and thus a position of honor. A lot of pride is put in these wagons, and there’s few better ways to undermine a chief’s authority than to destroy theirs, which will probably result in the tribe collapsing, its members disappearing to join up with other tribes or strike out on their own. There you go, there’s your big set piece boss battle.

While those orcs who go out on raids are the strongest and fiercest, all adult orcs can handle themselves in a fight. When defending the homestead, their numbers are augmented by the mighty orogs. Orogs don’t go out on raids because they’re sacred to Luthic and, again, Gruumsh is really insecure about his wife being a better patron deity than he is.

On the next page, we get an example of a war wagon, a rickety old thing covered in spears and shields, with the skull of an aurochs mounted on the front. Some sort of weird... vulture chicken looks on.

Most orc raids aren’t that destructive. When they attack a human or halfling village, they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way, but they’re mainly after loot and food. There’s no honor in slaughtering the children, elderly, and meek. They may return again and again to plunder the same community anew. From a certain point of view, orcs can be said to act like farmers, and not unsustainable ones at that. Elves and dwarves are treated differently. There’s an enmity between the orc and elf pantheons that stretches back to the battle that cost Gruumsh his eye and caused Corellion to bleed the drops of divinity that would become the first elves. Orcs show no mercy to elf communities - they slaughter the populace and burn them to the ground. In the rare cases that orcs manage to fight their way into a dwarf hold, they’ll also butcher any dwarf they see, but in such cases it’s because a dwarf hold is an extremely secure fortress and they want the real estate. If the dwarves attempt to retreat they’ll be allowed to do so.

Orcs consider strength a virtue, and creatures with a good portion of that virtue can be found amongst them. Tribes often number ettins and wereboars amongst their number, and sometimes muster the food to hire trolls for a time. Other tribes serve under powerful monsters, either having been enslaved or for the sake of security from the retribution of those they’ve raided. Creatures that often have orc retinues include green dragons and frost and fire giants. A lone contingent of orcs without a tribe may end up in the stewardship of an ogre, a hill giant, or even an evil human of atypical power.

Most orc tribes number a few hundred at most; their raiding lifestyle can’t really support more than that. Thus, when two tribes meet, the initial feeling is always hostility. Nobody wants more competition for food and targets. Take care that it remains that way. If you give orcs common cause, they’ll be perfectly willing to put their differences aside and join up into a single legion, and when that happens, well, nations fall. You’d be surprised how many regions of the world are not ruled by orcs only because those orcs prefer victims to subjects.

Next time, Orc Culture and Beliefs and Roleplaying an Orc. See you tomorrow!


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Now I got this vision of a long-established orc tribe that accidentally manages to become the central government of a kingdom, with the regular raids having become essentially a theatrical form of tax collection. The "raiding party" marches up to a settlement, roars and bang their shields loudly, people come out to pay them and get receipts, "raiding party" moves on. There's an elaborate bureaucracy to keep track of the "plunder", which gets used to build and maintain essential infrastructure all through the region. The people are prosperous, happy and safe.

There's this huge book that's half Constitution, half excuses that explain that all of this is still the good old Gruumsh-approved raider culture, honest! We're improving the economy so there's more to loot later, you see, and we're building roads so our boyz can get there faster, and we build those hospitals so the humies don't die of disease and are still there to be looted, and and...


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Orc Culture and Beliefs

Because their Gods are terrifying, orcs rapidly develop superstitions and taboos in reaction to events, in an attempt to avoid pissing them off. The priesthood is given the responsibility of recording and interpreting signs, which can go on for days if the omens are new. A couple sample superstitions are given, the best one being that if a human or dwarf dies while invoking their God, you must carry their ears for three days to keep that God from hearing, after which you must bury them, lest you invite retribution.

The Orcish tongue uses dwarven/giant runes for writing, but they’re not exactly a literate culture. They don’t keep records or write books. Instead, most orc writing goes into simple signposting, with symbols being drawn on walls across orc territory to denote food storage, nearby dangers, and the like. Lots of outdoorsy types learn to read these symbols so they don’t wander into their doom.

Lots of color is used in orc iconography. The most commonly seen are red (Blood), white (Death), and black (Darkness). How that iconography is used varies from tribe to tribe. In one, painting your tusks red may be a sign of authority, while in another, warriors cover themselves with bone ash after battles.

There’s a sidebar on Orcs as Underlings. Powerful evil humans have a penchant for for taking over orc tribes. Human warriors conquer tribes by just swooping in and killing their leadership. Spellcasters have to be subtler, often acting through an orc ally. They work together to kill the old guard and put the orc conspirator in charge, then the caster manipulates omens through illusion magic and validates the change in leadership. The tribe will soon be doing whatever the duo requests. Some orcs, scattered beyond their tribes for one reason or another, turn to mercenary work. Orcs make excellent mercenaries, because they always follow through to the letter of the contract. They tend to believe they’ll be hunted down and executed otherwise, being as they were raised in a culture without much sense of proportional response.

Elminster has an aside. He says that Gruumsh choosing you as a worshipper can drive an orc insane. Once again, this was already stared earlier.

Roleplaying an Orc

We start with confirmation that orcs, unlike, say, gnolls, are not doomed to a life of bloodshed and slaughter. If raised in a more comforting environment, then yes, they’re perfectly capable of developing a sense of compassion and love. However, although not all orcs are evil, all orcs are certainly angry. Orcs love battle and desire to prove their own strength on a level even the most macho humans can only emulate. Orcs don’t have to fight for the forces of darkness, but if they want to stay mentally well, they have to fight for something.

Orc tables are up next, and for the most part they’re rather boring. Orcs like fighting and weapons and killing things. The only interesting table is the one on flaws. An orc’s flaw might be that they don’t really get upset when insulted, they don’t see much reason to put too much stock in superstitions, and them understanding that civilization is useful sometimes. Marvelous.

Orc names sometimes have meaning, but not always. Most orcs of an impressive stature are given epithets by their tribe mates, such as “Doom Hammer” or “The Filthy”.

Next time, we take a look at the various near-orc creatures and hybrids. See you soon!


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Orcs don’t have to fight for the forces of darkness, but if they want to stay mentally well, they have to fight for something.
So could we have an orc that is constantly publishing brutal satires of the injustice that they see in the world? Or is the "fight for something" more literal? After all, Terry Pratchett was often described by people as one of the most furious people that they had ever met.

If that doesn't count, what are the elderly clerics of Gruumsh fighting?


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Those guys are the management and send out the lesser orcs.
That seems logical, but we're talking Gruumsh and his clerics here. Wouldn't crazy old One Eye expect them to be more active in the frontline? Even if their activity is more diplomatic or leader oriented than straight up combat?

I'm thinking crazy old (like a fox) Orc clerics crashing the Elf Duchess's Spring Flower-Viewing Cottellian. If they bring the Beer, and maybe a loud band of warrior bards, they might make inroads with the Dwarfs. A drunken biker gang like Dwarf-Orc ("Orc-Dwarf!") alliance has possibilities.
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