Creating 5E D&D Mechanus Orcs Through Worldbuilding
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted take a look at the savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces with prominent lower canines that resemble tusks in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Orcs have been a staple of D&D and fantasy in general forever, typically as a threat looming in the wilderness on the edges of civilization. Volo’s Guide to monsters does a good job expanding on orcs for 5E D&D essentially as divinely driven destroyers, a pretty one note portrayal. Campaign settings offer a window into different kinds of orc societies like you’ll find in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount and Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Dave and Ted climb in through that window to make themselves at home and offer up three new ways to reimagine orcs for players and Dungeons Masters alike by adding just a few simple details.
Make 5E D&D orcs your own
The heart of the video discussion really comes down to worldbuilding. In a game all about celebrating your imagination this is one of the most enjoyable aspects for so many players. Worldbuilding is a broad term and on the surface sounds pretty daunting. Creating an entire world seems really intimidating! But the fact is players and DMs alike engage in worldbuilding all the time, both during game sessions and between them.
Whether your 5E D&D adventures take place in deeply detailed campaign settings like Forgotten Realms or Exandria, or in a setting made whole cloth by a single player or group the way Dave and Ted’s Ultheganya world developed, the moment you embark on adventures you’ve made it your own. For my own games I followed the tried and true advice of starting small when it comes to worldbuilding and came up with a starting town where adventurers begin their journey. Beyond this small community the world remains intentionally unknown — including by me! As characters explore and travel further from their starting point I sort of procedurally generate whatever else is out there.
Because so many of my games (even the low level ones) tend to stray into strangeness very quickly, orcs share the same circumstances as goblins — they’ve yet to be encountered by adventurers. A small group did square off against a small force holed up in an abandoned fort during a rescue mission and one of the captors was orcish, but they got away. So let’s do some worldbuilding and come up with a new way to orc for my own 5E D&D games so when the escaped orc shows up again they’ve got some context.
I’m going to use my favorite 5E D&D book for this one in the same manner I did for goblins. The Dungeon Master’s Guide contains a tremendous amount of material, including lots of tables and charts I’ll put to the task once again. I don’t have to go very far into the DMG, starting with Chapter 1: A World of Your Own. So let’s get into it.
Better orcs through randomness
Orcs in my setting need a form of government to represent how their society is structured, who holds power and what is important to them. I’ll roll on a bunch of tables and charts and if I’m lucky by the time all the rolls are made I’ll have some neat ideas how to put together everything that emerged.
“Hierarchy. A feudal or bureaucratic government where every member, except one, is subordinate to another member. In the Dragonlance campaign setting, the dragonarmies of Krynn form a military hierarchy, with the Dragon Highlords as leaders under the dragon queen Takhisis.”
- World shaking event: Fall of a leader or an era
- Leader type: Crime/underworld
- Cataclysmic disaster: Plague/disease
- Invading forces: A planar threat
- New organization: New family dynasty/tribe/clan
- Discovery: Resource or wealth (gold, gems, mithral)
- Astral Color Pool: Mechanus — Diamond blue
- Psychic Wind Effect: Diverted; add 1d6 hours to travel time and stunned for 1 minute; you can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of your turns to end the effect on yourself
- Ethereal Curtain: Plane of Water — Green
- Ether Cyclone: Extended journey
- Time Warp: Days become hours
- Despair: Dread
- Corruption: Treachery
- Goals: Discover why an entity is interested, discover the fate of a previous group, locate a site of interest, infiltrate a fortified location
- Important figure: Humanoid raider or ravager
- Allies: Raving lunatic
- Patron: Deity or celestial
Putting it together through worldbuilding
Planar events and interactions occur quite a bit in my campaign setting so like it was with Beastlands goblins I was super excited to include those randomly determined components for these orcs. Thinking more on this ideas begin to form about all the monstrous humanoids in the world. I like the notion they’re all natives from other planes whose cultures were transposed to the Waking World for some reason or another. (The Waking World is what I call the Material Plane.) This is all pure worldbuilding without game design elements to provide deeper context for orcs and make them more memorable for players when they’re encountered.
The orcs trace their origins to Mechanus, a plane of absolute order and law. On their home plane the orcs follow a strict hierarchy with each orc representative of a cog turning the wheels of their society. Orcs find their place in Mechanus deep within the Great Machine’s underworld where their great fortitude and strength makes them excellently suited to laborious clockwork. The orcs are rigidly minded and go about their duties with rote precision, maintaining the status quo through the Law of Averages.
All of this changed when a humanoid ravager introduced chaos into the mix through an unusual disease called Ill Turned Fate. The unfortunate affliction resulted first in the unlucky death of the orc Supreme Constructor and subsequently the breakdown of their structured society in Mechanus. A deep dread festered in the hearts of the orcs bereft of their cherished order and treachery emerged within their culture.
Abandoned their dutiful place as part of the Great Machine the orcs of Mechanus began to disperse and scatter. One of these groups stumbled upon a fallen gynosphinx lair hidden within the clockwork cogs. The sphinx long ago lost it’s hold on sanity and took great interest in the orcs, revealing to them a growing planar threat. The sphinx offered to guide these orcs to a new world where they might discover a new place for themselves.
This new orc clan embarked on an extended journey to reach the Waking World. Guided by the sphinx and her cryptic prophecies the orcs eventually arrived at their destination but not before a psychic wind diverted their path through a strange green ethereal curtain that transplanted them into a sea of thick soil and sludge. Aided by the last remnants of the sphinx and her power to control the flow of time the orcs survived this transition by moving through in hours what would normally take days, a journey that would otherwise have surely claimed all their lives.
Exiting the Silt Flats of the Plane of Water near the Swamp of Oblivion the orcs found themselves at last in the Waking World. The planar effects on the thick and muddy swampland produced a beneficial effect to the orcs — the mud and muck concealed a vast wealth of precious metals including rare mithral!
Without the influence of Mechanus on their psyche and culture this new clan of orcs felt free to build their own destiny here in the Waking World and a ready supply of valuable resources would help them establish themselves. The clan leaders maintain the same hierarchal structure they knew for so long, but rather than focus their entire society towards the singular goal of clockwork maintenance they began to develop their own new ideas about where to go from here.
Learning the identity of the humanoid ravager becomes a priority for these orcs. That entity brought about unprecedented change to their people and they want to know why, and if the ill turned fate that destroyed their society will rear it’s diseased head again. They’re also curious about the rest of the Mechanus orcs who split off from their culture.
Voila! Some random charts and tables plus a few minutes connecting all these elements and now I’ve got an intriguing orc culture for my campaign setting along with a region bordering the Swamp of Oblivion that lies between the Plane of Water and the Plane of Earth. I think I’ll stick with the Swamp of Oblivion name because it sounds cool and ominous and these Mechanus orcs would probably understand the planar circumstances well enough. This also gives them a powerful economic resource to help them establish their culture. And they’ve got a sweet fallen gynosphinx patron with her own puzzling motives. Whenever Adventurers of Adventure discover the Swamp of Oblivion they’ll encounter these Mechanus orcs. They’ve got an incredible tale to share with several fantastic components to hook characters and take stories in extraordinary directions and we didn’t have to do a lick of game design to make these orcs quite different than the bog standard variety in terms of scope and their place in the world.