Fire on the Velvet Horizon (FVH) is a monster manual of really unique monsters. The introduction though is what inspired me to write this piece. FVH coins the term the M’th person as the perspective monster manuals are written in. An odd god tense that dictates absolute fact, and at the same time doesn’t always know what is going on with the monster in question as well. Instead of diving deeper into the strange and unique monsters presented within its own covers (I’m sure I’ll get to this later) it made me think of the common monsters we see again and again in adventures.
Dungeons and Dragons and roleplaying games in general have evolved over time. While mostly this has focused on rule changes to either add depth or increase ease of play, one thing that has remained constant is the conflict with monsters. The Orc and the dragon are perhaps the most quintessential monsters within the fantasy genre. I’m going to focus on the orc because they are a far more common enemy that can be encountered even at low levels as a significant threat, and yet still appear at higher levels (albeit more in the role as cannon fodder for the big bad) while the Dragon tends to be reserved as a more limited encounter.
What follows are the entries on orcs from various monster manuals. As you will see each section starts off with a few details so you can easily find the entry if you desire to compare to my analysis, but I also include the first sentence from the entry verbatim, as this is obviously the most important this the M’th voice has to tell us about the humble orc.
AD&D 1st Edition. p. 76 # appearing 30-300
First sentence of MM: Orc tribes are fiercely competitive, and when they meet it is 75% likely that they will fight each other unless a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) with sufficient force behind him is on hand to control the orcs.
Orcs primary traits are being bullies that adhere to leadership of the fittest, and will at best intimidate/bully other races into doing their bidding, and at worse enslave them. They will take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (tourture, etc.) . This subtle information gives light to how horrible orcs are. They will eat other sentient races, torture for fun, and as they are described later as being willing to breed with anything, it can be expected that entertainment means sex as well.
They are capable of being self sustaining being described as being accomplished tunnelers and miners. Preferring to live in subterranean areas (and having a light sensitivity) their non-combat abilities are further made plain by their above ground lairs consist of wooden huts complete with a palisade, watchtowers, and crew served weapons to defend themselves. Their greatest limitation seems to be their over aggressiveness leads to infighting with each other as much as them being a threat to anyone else. The only ally they are listed as having are Ogres who may appear in a large enough settlement. The entry on Ogres describes that Ogres will work for Orcs as mercenaries. The Ogre probably benefits from the orcs (slightly) higher intelligence.
Appearance wise they are distinctly not human being described as disgusting. After that a few details of with brown, brownish green skin with pink ears and snouts. The image of the orc has a porcine face with misaligned tusks.
Half-Orcs are listed as a sub-entry because Orcs will breed with anything except elves. Which they have enmity towards and will kill on site rather than even enslave.
AD&D 2nd Edition. p. 281 # appearing 30-300
First sentence: Orcs are a species of aggressive mammalian carnivores that band together in tribes and survive by hunting and raiding.
Second edition seems to downplay the internal strife of the orcs (though they will still war with other tribes) and directing it more outwards towards other races. Their hatred towards elves is to “Historic enmity between elves and dwarves” willing to kill both on sight. Orcs increase in complexity in this edition, believing that in order to survive they must expand their territory, and value territory above all else. Although a maximum encounter is still listed as 300, they are able to construct much larger lairs, their numbers expanding to cities ranging from 2000-20000 Orcs. Orcs are still described as viewing slavery as part of the natural order, the first edition emphasis on slavery is downplayed and they are only mentioned as being part of a baggage carriers. Their cannibal nature is downplayed as well, stating that they prefer other types of meat to demi-human. Religion for orcs is first introduced as with the addition of shamans or witch doctors in a sufficiently large population. They have multiple deities with the chief deity being (usually) a one eyed orc. Absent from this edition is the presence of ogres in orc societies, though the ogre entry still lists them as being mercenaries in the employ of orc tribes. A new addition is the sub-species of Orogs, a smarter tougher orc. Half orcs are present as a sub-entry though breeding with an elf is listed as an impossibility rather than something that just doesn’t occur out of racial hatred.
Over all second edition humanizes orcs a bit treating their threat more as an imperialistic evil force rather than agents of hatred and chaos.
Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition. P.203 # appearing 2-100
First sentence: Orcs are aggressive humanoids that raid, pillage, and battle other creatures.
Orcs get a physical upgrade as their weakness to light is removed. Orcs get softened up again on a cultural level though, their hatred of elves beginning generations ago, and only “often” kill them on sight. They have a stronger ties with other orcs as while being willing to work for non-orcs they will rebel unless being commanded by orcs. The role of female orcs is first described in this edition. Of course it is not a great role as they are “prized possessions at best and chattel at worst”. Slaves have been removed from Orc society, rather that all worldly goods belonging to others is rightfully orcs. The one eyed orc god, get a name in this edition: Gruumsh. The diety from the forgotten realms game setting being made the standard for all orcs now. Ogres are still absent from orc society, and have no mention of orcs within their own entry in the monster Manuel. Orogs are gone, being replaced with orcs with levels & class abilities like a player character instead. Half orcs still make an appearance as a sub entry but they just kind of appear in either orc or human society. This edition seems to shy away from the grittier aspects of orc life rape, cannibalism and slavery. Though still imperialistic Orcs seem to be watered down and could easily be replaced with any religiously motivated barbarian tribe.
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. P. 203 # appearing 4-7
First sentence: Orcs worship Gruumsch, the one-eyed god of slaughter, and are savage, bloodthirsty marauders.
Orc de-evlove in 4th edition. Gone is a lot of the more complex motivations of previous editions, the details of society and ecology. They can no longer build or manage their own culture, instead being scavengers that occupy the abandoned/conquered settlements of others. Instead they are religiously motivated locusts, that require other societies to raid from to survive, though cannibalism is back. Orcs are the consummate fodder in 4th edition. They rush into close combat with little to no thought of self preservation. They will fight alongside ogres but no other detail is given on the nature of this relationship. Orcs are more eclectic, with example encounters including dire boars, dire wolves, and dinosaurs (!) Orcs are subdivided into specific roles when encountered. Orc Drudge, Orc Warrior, Orc Raider, Orc Bezerker, Orc Eye of Gruumsch (cleric), Orc Bloodrager, Orc Chieftain. A bunch of different stats for mostly the same tactic of “rush forward and hit it”. This complex subdivision of orc power levels handled in previous editions by a simple: for every X orcs encountered is an orc of Y hit dice.
Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition p. 244 # appearing N/A
First sentence: Orcs are savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces with prominent lower canines that resemble tusks.
We see a combination of several previous editions here, with several of the ideas expanded upon and blended, though most closely aligning with their 3rd edition predecessor. Fifth Edition give the greatest detail on Orcsish religion, and uses this as a springboard for their constant war and aggression to other religions with conflict between deities as the reason for particular Orcish hatred for Elves. It also expands from naming only Gruumsh to including a fertility goddess, Luthic as well. Their society is semi-nomadic occupying other species structures and only improving them for temporary defense and then moving on when targets to raid are no longer within striking distance. Orcs are more inclusive of other races in their groups accepting ogres, trolls, half-orcs, orogs; the last two being sub-races of orc. There is still very much the feel of orcs being a religiously fueled fanatic, though in this edition it comes across more as this is a cultural explanation/justification for their place in the world. There is a distinct gap in the information in this edition though with their focus on raiding other civilizations, killing everything, and picking the area clean of material wealth, there is no room for slavery or the cross-race rape associated with previous editions. As a result it can be assumed that most of this prolific breeding occurs within the orc community or with other goblinoid/evil races (half orc/ half ogres are specifically mentioned). The status of females in the society also get an upgrade as orc culture is only “generally” patriarchal. With the focus on breeding and birth by divine commandment it may result in orcish females having a more revered status than the chattel of 3rd edition.
Between 3rd and 4th editions we saw two direct decendedts or Dungeons and Dragons in the form of Pathfinder and Hackmaster. The evolution of Orcs from these games can be seen as an alternate evolution from Dungeons and Dragons 4th and 5th editions.
Pathfinder. P. 222 # encountered 1
First sentence: Along with their brute strength and comparatively low intellect, the primary difference between orcs and the civilize humanoids is their attitude.
Again Orcs seem to culturally devolve from 2nd edition to Pathfinder. Orcs are not component at managing a self sustaining civilization, though this is due to a lack of patience. Good enough being the Orcs watchword apparently, they are more attracted to the immediate gains of entertainment (eg drinking and fighting) and it is just easier to take things from others. Slaves are mentioned though, there is little evidence of their employment other than being the forced partner in producing half-orcs. As orcs seem to be aware of their own mental limitations, and understand that this interacial breeding is a solution. Religion is not mentioned at all.
Hackmaster 4th edition (if you aren’t familiar with Hackmaster there is no 1-3 editions) p.32-41. # encountered 30-300 with war parties of 6-15.
First sentence: Orcs are man-sized bipeds with the faces and tusks of boars.
Hackmaster spreads orcs out over 11 different entries (which have sub-entries), with additional entries for the half-orc and orkin (half-half-orcs). The main emphasis on orc culture is the chaotic nature and internal strife that promotes in-fighting as much as fighting with anyone else. Orcs have a focus on ritual and ceremony to organize their lives. Slaves still play a major role in orc society functioning as they do not have the ability or patience to have the complex society as described in D&D 2nd Ed.
Hackmater 5th edition p. 234 # encountered 1-360+
First sentence: The most numerous and prolific of the evil humanoid races, orcs are also the most violent and savage.
Orcs are lazy, dumb, and cowardly. Here many of the established orc reasoning for orcs actions are changed, with the intent of having orcs be as vile as possible. Orcs take no pleasure in plunder, but rather the violence itself. Tactics exist, and although not complex, it really portrays the orcs as of low intelligence, rather than suicidal. Though they have some mining capability, they vastly prefer the use of slaves for any labor they need. The are preferentially cannibalistic, favoring easting demi-humans to any other meat. Rape culture defines Orcs here. 50% of orc population is female though very few of those are actually “orcs” rather they are captured females kept as breeding stock. Life expectancy for these captuered women is woefully short and likely extends to only if they are with child. Religion exists within orc culture, but its prevalence is directly related to the personal power of the shaman of the tribe. Ogres appear in orc lairs to serve as guards in exchange for food. Five orc sub races are detailed plus half-orcs. In my personal opinion the effort the authors go to, to make the orcs repugnant works really well as in this incarnation they seem to be functional on a level that I couldn’t just replace with a human barbarian tribe.