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D&D General Handling the Orc Horde as a key setting element


Like, take lightless, volcanic Mordor. How, exactly, does it sustain these massive orc armies? Where are their cities, farms, merchants? Where are the women? The children?
"Frodo and Sam gazed out in mingled loathing and wonder on this hateful land. Between them and the smoking mountain, and about it north and south, all seemed ruinous and dead, a desert burned and choked. They wondered how the Lord of this realm maintained and fed his slaves and armies... Neither [Sam] nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves."

Tolkien doesn't dwell on this, because "The Lord of the Rings" has a story to tell and the reader is not generally interested in hearing the details of Mordor's logistical arrangements. But he put a lot of thought into making the logistics of everything work. The only part that really doesn't fit is the technology level of the Shire (which has many anachronisms from Victorian England); Tolkien himself noted this in his letters, but he had inherited it from "The Hobbit" and was more or less stuck with it.

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I don't really want every race to be humans with nothing but rubber masks. So I'd probably go with previous suggestions, perhaps they're like locusts*. During lean times, there's no conscious decision to not have children, it's just a biological mechanism. Lean times means few offspring, times of plenty automatically lead to a boom cycle. Get a boom cycle and they expand far and wide caring little about survival of the individual as long as some areas are conquered and retained, perhaps at the cost of losing control of older "used up" lands. So the horde may lie low for a while and while 50 years ago they exploded out of the Gray Hills (which is now heavily patrolled), this time they're coming from the deep forest they drove the elves out of last time.

But the biggest question to me, is what role do the hordes play in the overall story? Do you need or want a horde? Do you want "evil" empires or groupings? Is any of that based on race, religion, political affiliation? If it's the latter two, the races involved can be any mix you want. If it's race, that doesn't make them inherently evil, just a evolutionary niche of consolidate and explode. It also doesn't mean that even if it is race that there are not other peoples that join in to take advantage of the opportunities.

You also need to think about how much you want to lean into black and white, good and evil. Personally I don't need a game to be the moral gray of the real world, but that's a personal preference. Is there a secret power, perhaps an individual, behind the sudden aggression or is it just an uncoordinated attack? If it's like locusts, it's really just a confluence of events. Cosmic struggle of good and evil? The hordes are probably spurred by some dark force with ulterior motives whether the hordes realize it or not.

*There's an interesting article here on the subject of locusts, how most of the time they're solitary fairly large grasshopper but when their numbers grow they transform.


I really quite do like the suggestion that someone made that Gruumsh is not just a distant creator god and mythological figure, but an active despot who really wants the claim of being lord over a powerful people of strong conquerors. No matter how many orcs have to die for his dream. We do have plenty of examples of purely mortal human dictators doing just that and somehow getting a large majority to be full on board or at least going along without protesting.
Add to that an army of religious police shamans and the whole lunacy of it all becomes pretty realistic. We do see dissent in real countries. But if you have something like this going for thousands of years and hundreds of generations, and the eternal war with the hated mortal enemy is not just propaganda but nearly constant active warfare, then it becomes fairly plausible that barely anyone considers that society is total madness and pointless suffering.

Dear Leader Kim Jong-Gruumsh.


A goblinoid clan/tribe/whatev strictly controls births during the lean years. They practice birth control or infanticide (maybe for the tribes you want to label as notably evil).
They could, but they could also not practice either.

As with many other real-world species, fertility tends to go down during the lean years because of malnutrition and stress, and infantile survival rate is low for the same reasons. Then things settle down and populations begin to rise again as resources become more bountiful. Depending on whether these goblins are apex predators or not, a healthier, more numerous goblin populations may also mean a healthier and more numerous owlbear populations or stronger and oppressive orc populations or whatnot. Confronted with abundance or predators and stretched resources, this prompts an exodus wave where the new generations wage war onto the nearby "civilised lands" as cultural response to overpopulation.


They could, but they could also not practice either.

As with many other real-world species, fertility tends to go down during the lean years because of malnutrition and stress, and infantile survival rate is low for the same reasons. Then things settle down and populations begin to rise again as resources become more bountiful. Depending on whether these goblins are apex predators or not, a healthier, more numerous goblin populations may also mean a healthier and more numerous owlbear populations or stronger and oppressive orc populations or whatnot. Confronted with abundance or predators and stretched resources, this prompts an exodus wave where the new generations wage war onto the nearby "civilised lands" as cultural response to overpopulation.
Oh yeah, that's absolutely right. And that was my first thought when I was writing the long post.

I changed it to be deliberate because I thought that short-notice self-selected population booms would be a weird cultural artifact/superpower that has no parallel in IRL human societies.


Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
I personally like the stupid Orcs fight for the sake of fighting trope for WH40K, I mean there's a reason that I joined /r/OrkScience (it's so I can yell on the internet about gubbinz and stoopid gitz). That said, I don't think the extreme satire of 40K works well for Forgotten Realms. It could, you can do worse than 40K Orks who have already won. They're exactly where they want to be, ready for a good krumpin'.

What we can adapt that though is that orcs have a finely dialed flight or fight instinct pointing straight at fight. At a very basic level their first impulse to adrenal rushes is to attack something. Take that logically and apply to a large omnivore and you get hyper-aggressive predators. They'll eat anything, and if it pisses them off, they punch it then eat it. That means their basic social interactions are going to likely involve aggression, which loops back around to the biggest orc is the boss, and why they raid. You don't get a stable leadership if you're members are constantly fighting each other. So, the smart orc boss sends their followers out to fight something other than each other (that'll probably happen anyways, but at least the raiders are mostly directed at somebody else).

At a certain point nuance isn't the point. The setting is there to play a game, and orcs have been making pretty handy antagonists since Grishnákh nabbed a pair of Hobbits.


But to push back some--the 'barbarians', as described in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set and Savage Frontier, aren't losing ground to colonization by 'civilized' peoples, they beat the civilized peoples (well, the orc 'barbarians' did). The dwarves and elves are still declining in the face of persistent attacks, and humankind hasn't recovered much of what the orcs took (and might lose to them too). The raiding isn't a coping strategy its an equilibrium strategy, and I think that's more fun to explain, since it isn't inherently sympathetic.
They beat part of the "civilized" people.

See, what if the elves and dwarves won the first centuries of the war? They pushed the orcs back and back, claiming more and more territory with magic and fortifications.

Then the orcs found their own magics and ways to defeat the fortifications of the enemy. They have now reclaimed 75% of what they lost.

This looks a lot like "the orcs have won", but in reality the dwarves and elves still have displaced the orcs from 25% of the territory they had. And the settlements the orcs have still don't have enough buffer room around them, because the other races keep building forts in the "fallow" territory the orc civilization requires. Leading to raiding etc.

A full on horde attack requires (a) a pile of gathered resources, (b) a leader able to unify the tribes, and (c) an enroachment bad enough to justify the horde.

Short of the horde, you get raiding. Constant raiding, because the "civilized people" keep on trying to push into the fallow territory (the edges of which aren't well guarded) and build fortifications.


In my world building, I have an explicit Law-Chaos axis.

Road and Wall societies are on the Law end of the axis.
Hill and Sky societies are on the Chaos end of the axis.

As I want extensive wilderness, but also want huge cities, I make my worldbuilding cause this.

Road and Wall exploit high-density magical ley line intersections for their cities. They use this magic to generate extremely high yields for crops near said cities. This allows us to have very urbanized populations that aren't at the head of continent-wide peaceful farm food trade networks.

The Walls of this civilization are magically warded -- down to the walls of individual homesteads -- as are the roads. The roads travel along ley lines, with shrines along them, where travelers perform rituals that reinforce the wards. The roads are less protected than the settlements, naturally; but this allows nasty monsters in the wilderness, but still with a trade route that goes through it.

The Road and Wall civilizations rituals are about reinforcing these collective protections of their society. You pray for the wall and the road at major rituals, not yourself.

On the other end are the Hill and Sky people. They control most of the world in terms of land area, because their food production is not intensive like the Road and Wall people. There are more Hill and Sky people, but with a lower population density. Hill and Sky survive by making deals with the local spirits of the land, who shield them from (most) of the deadlier monsters. These relatationships are personal, individual to spirit, and their societies rituals support these one-on-one bargains with the spirits. You find your spirit guide to become protected by, you sacrifice part of your kill to the spirit protecting your prey, etc.

Lawful here means loyal to systems and rules. Someone who swears loyalty not to the Queen, but to the Crown, is making a Lawful oath.

Chaotic here means loyal to people and individuals. Someone who swears loyalty to the Queen, but not to the Crown, is making a Chaotic oath.

Now, two Chaotic societies will be no more likely to be allies than two Lawful societies will be. And many societies will bridge the gap between them, or even use a different way - a different axis - to deal with the dangerous world.

Using this model, the Orcs are Chaotic. They have managed to overrun a number of dwarven fortresses (ley line nexuses), probably by learning of a new way to deal with the dwarven wards (this might require great sacrifice however! Or maybe the attack technique just weakens them; the dwarves fell because they relied too much on the wards, the cities that hold know not to place too much faith in them).


I like the Viking idea. Part of the pacts the Orcs make require you to prove your worth as a warrior to the spirit you are making a bargain with. So they go out a-Viking, engaging in raids and proving their worth in combat.

With their society being constantly surrounded and attacked by the Road and Wall civilizations, a taboo developed against proving your worth by merely fighting other Orcs. This change was part of the reason that let the Orcs overrun the Dwarven cities. Prior to this taboo, Orcs would slaughter each other in great numbers as part of these rituals, and if an Orc wanted to prove themselves a great warchief they would engage in a massive civil war.

With the taboo, the raids are on the Road and Wall people's (weakening them as much as the raids weaken the Orcs), and a Great Warchief leads the horde not in a civil war, but against the Road and Wall people.

A true horde requires about 1/5 of the Orcs warriors to gather; back in the day, another 1/5 would rise up against it. Today, the dual Hordes still form, but instead of turning on each other, they head out in two different directions; whomever produces the most glory wins the competition.

At 40% of the Orcs' warriors, a massive loss is painful, but wouldn't leave them open to being counter-attacked. I mean, you might take back the outermost settlements, but most of the Orcs' warriors are still ready to fight.

And defensive war doesn't require a warchief.

At the same time, Orcs have no need to actually wipe out their foes. A foe completely destroyed is no longer a good foe to fight. With the taboo, you want to keep your opponents strong enough to be a challenge; or you need to find a stronger foe once you dispatch them.


I had a different model for goblins in one world I invented. Here, Goblins embody "you are what you eat". Goblins are born as larva, and the adult Goblin that is born depends on what the larva is fed.

Goblins will mostly breed true if fed Goblin-meat. If you feed larva wolf, the Goblin is born as a dire wolf. If you feed them a bear, you get a bug bear. Etc.

Goblinoids believe in reincarnation, and they have proof. The larva can remember some of the knowledge that their food host had.

What kind of Goblin you get out of a larva is not fully deterministic, but Goblin societies learn how to guide it. So Hobgoblins learn what mix of what meat produces Hobgoblins (often mostly Hobgoblin!), but all Goblin societies feed for specialty workers.

Having your meat return to the larva is important; that is how a Goblin lives on past their score-and-four years. Long goblin lineages can go back centuries, producing goblins who remember the distant past. Worthy foes will have their meat incorporated mostly intact into goblin larva to bring their strength into the tribe. Unworthy foes will have their meat ground up and scattered.


Loads of great ideas for cultural and biological motivations. One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is external stimuli.

Orcs live in rough country, but so do much scarier monsters. A dragon moving into a new lair could easily prompt an orc migration across several tribes, and since the dragon is a lot scarier than town-dwelling humans... well, path of least resistance. The same holds for outbreaks of undead, the appearance of powerful wizards, or the opening of gates to less savory planes of existance. If the orcs raze a town or two, they draw the attention of other tribes that may join the "horde" for easy loot, revenge for past wrongs, or the glory of Gruumsh. It wouldn't take much for the oft maligned orcs to rally behind their version of Joan of Arc. While expecting this to occur frequently enough to blacken the reputation of orcs may seem farfetched, consider that it occurs with enough frequency to keep the PCs regularly engaged.

Similarly, orcs have found safety in fallen dwarf-holes, but they never consider what those holes might be concealing. Ancient evils bound by dwarven rituals, deep dragons or Balrogs, formerly guarded passages to the realms of drow or illithids... All can be harsh masters to the orcs, forcing them into slavery or reverence, and requiring tributes of gold, flesh, or even souls. The orc plague along a nation's borders could be caused by any of these, particularly if the orcs are attacking with particular savagery. Similar forces could drive orcs from their dark forests or craggy hills.


Now I want to run a high level adventure set in an ancient dwarf hold that had been inhabited by orcs for 200 years and suffered a combination of demon portal and zombie apocalypse about a month ago. Mostly everyone is dead, with bands of survivors trying to scavenge supplies to attempt a breakout through the blizzard battered mountains.

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