Thursday, August 27, 2020

Orcish ODDities

Volume II of original Dungeons & Dragons states that orcs make their lairs either in cave complexes or above ground villages. If they dwell in a village, there's a 25% chance per 100 orcs of a 7th-9th level fighting man being among them, as well as a 10% chance per 100 orcs of an 11th level magic-user. If they dwell in caves, there's a 10% chance per 100 orcs of there being a dragon present, as well as 10% chance per 100 orcs of 1-4 trolls. Both types of settlements have a chance of 1-6 ogres being among them. These powerful creatures are called "leader/protector types" in the text of Monsters & Treasures, which is a delightfully vague yet suggestive. 

Meanwhile, AD&D's Monster Manual makes a passing reference to orcs needing "a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) with sufficient force behind him" to control them, but that's it. Gone are the references to non-orcish "leader/protector types," with more verbiage expended on telling us what percentage of orcs wield polearms (20%, in case you're wondering). There are also references to females and young living in orcish settlements as well, something completely absent and not even hinted at in OD&D.

Now, it may seem to some that I'm bashing AD&D here. If I am, it's not because Gygax's description of orcs in the Monster Manual is many times longer and more specific than the one in OD&D. Rather, it's because, in OD&D, orcs are clearly monsters, while in AD&D they've graduated to being "humanoids." OD&D orcs are the kinds of nasty brutes you'd find cowed into service by an evil magician or dark knight or even a dragon, while AD&D orcs are a parallel human race, albeit an irredeemably evil one. That is, AD&D orcs have an existence apart from whom they serve, which makes it far easier to believe they have a unique society and culture of their own. OD&D, it seems to me, suggests that a race of ready-made minions akin to Maleficent's twisted goons from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. 
These days, I find myself preferring monstrous monsters over more nuanced and naturalistic humanoids, so OD&D rings my bell far better than does AD&D. That's purely a matter of preference, mind you, and, of course, one can easily ignore the Monster Manual's description of orcs in favor of one's own. I'm increasingly of the opinion, though, that AD&D has its own distinctive feel, one derived from actual play in the Lake Geneva campaign, whereas OD&D, in the LBBs anyway, has a much more nebulous feel. AD&D is Gary Gygax's D&D and it's that's awesome. But I want to play my D&D and I find it much, much easier to do so with OD&D, whose monster descriptions are so sparse as to demand that each referee fill in the blanks for his own campaign. That's as it should be.


  1. Yes! I always loved those Malifecent goond and imagined that's how I want goblins to be.

  2. Music to my ears! Yes. Yes, and yes.

    I think having orcs wear jewelry also probably goes along with the "humanoid culture" trope.

  3. Its interesting what is missed in this. Lets look at that 11th level magic user for a moment. In the Men and Magic book its listed as a Wizard. As the primary combat system was Chainmail a Wizard had the additional abilities of "In normal combat, all this class will fight as two Armored Foot, or two Medium Horse if mounted, and Wizards can handle magical weaponry.
    However, their chief prowess lies elsewhere. Wizards can become invisible and remain so until they attack, they can see in darkness, they affect friendly and enemy morale as do Super Heroes, they throw deadly missiles, and Wizards cast
    terrible spells. Wizards are themselves impervious to normal missile fire but if they are struck by a missile from an enemy Wizard they must score 7 or better with two to survive." Match this with the capabilities shown on the Fantasy Reference Table and the Wizard was very powerful indeed. Spell casting was shifted to whats given in the manual but the extended abilities were not struck from the game. having such a wizard in the party. When Grayhawk landed all that was lost, the wizard and other classes were in many ways lesser and the combat system lost its unique flavor moving to a move and bash style game.

  4. When I was younger I was fascinated by Gygaxian naturalism because it seemed to make monsters so believable to me. There is something to be said for having a rationale to explain the way things are, but of course there are options beside naturalism.

    Today I try to think along the lines of how people viewed the world pre-enlightenment. It can be difficult as a player to get into this mindset, so as a DM, I'm always looking for aids to help change my perspective and aid the way I narrate to players to get this perspective across. I haven't found any good sources, unfortunately; perhaps it's a technique that hasn't been given much thought.