About four weeks ago on the RPG Circus podcast, we kicked off our “favorite monsters” series with musings on orcs. Love them or hate them (or invite them over because mom says you have to), it doesn’t matter; orcs show up in game after game, system after system. I have no problem with that. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to share ideas about how to spruce up those sometimes cliché orc opponents for your next campaign.
Option 1: Make the orcs wicked smart. And by wicked smart, I mean tactically, socially, and strategically. We are so used to orcs being the typical grunts of the world that players believe they can easily outwit or outfight most orc foes. There’s a bit of metagaming going on there, mostly because we all know what orcs are and about how tough they are to fight or fool. But if the GM ups some stats and runs these orcs like badass super commandos, well, the story may change.
Option 2: Give the orcs tuxedos and fancy shoes. This option is a joke…mostly.
Option 3: Deeply consider orc allegiances. This pointer is obviously scenario-driven, but in many situations, the GM might want to specify exactly how and why these orcs are doing what they are doing. Is it for money? If so, can the players buy them off? When two or more orcs go down, will the rest run off when they realize that life is more valuable than gold? Are there other orc factions that can complicate the situation? In short, don’t just plop them into the story because they are “easy” for the campaign; instead, give these orcs reason to participate. Once that reason becomes clear to the players, the orcs ought to have more depth and possibility to them.
Option 4: I know some of you say this in secret, but go on, be loud and proud—more orc women. I’m just guessing, but I would bet that most orc groups as seen in today’s fantasy games are full of angry male orcs of little intellect. Why not throw in some ladies? They may change the dynamic of the situation. Given whatever orc social structure you have in mind, maybe orc ladies are master magicians or dead-eye archers. Maybe they are stronger than the male orcs because they spend less time drinking orc brew and eating fatty humans. I dunno, but I do know that the cliché orc gang is hardly ever female-inclusive. Well, rock the boat, please.
Option 5: Better technology. Many systems set up orcs to be primitive. Their magic is less refined and their arrows are poorly fletched. Maybe, in your next orc encounter, your players should come across a band of orcs that created or stumbled upon a more advanced system of weaponry or a piece of powerful “alien” tech. I once ran a post-apocalyptic adventure in which the players were beset by orcs with machine guns and power armor. The orcs themselves were still savage and straightforward, but their upgraded technology made for some harrowing encounters.
Final option: Don’t tell your players that these beings are orcs! In fact, never supply the name of your monsters. As soon as you supply that name, be it zombie, orc, troll, or basilisk, metagaming and overuse kick in. This goes for any “popular” beast. Instead, describe these creatures regarding their looks, gait, speech, demeanor, and perhaps odor. Leave the rest, including the stats that some players know by heart, to the imagination.