Volo’s Guide to Monsters gives us fantastic resources to use when designing lairs for kobolds and planning out how they’ll behave in a combat encounter. When it comes to orcs, though, Volo’s cops out on these topics, instead giving us an anthropological (orcological?) overview of the highly theocentric structure of orc society. This offers some guidance on encounter building, but nothing here offers any new insight on how orcs might behave during a fight, save one detail: war wagons.
We can surmise that a group of orcs escorting a war wagon will be less likely to charge Aggressively if doing so means leaving the war wagon unattended. Also, as reluctant as orcs are to retreat to begin with, they’ll be even more reluctant if doing so means abandoning a war wagon. To allow a well-laden war wagon to fall into the hands of an enemy by fleeing would be unforgivably disgraceful. Orcs are so hung up on pride and valor, they won’t even use the war wagon for cover if they’re seriously wounded. If they have 1 hp left, they’ll place that 1 hp between the enemy and the war wagon.
What Volo’s does offer are five (!) new varieties of orc, two of which are spellcasters, all of which build on the orcish pantheon of the Forgotten Realms setting.
The orc Blade of Ilneval is a front-line battlefield commander. It has three distinctive features—Foe Smiter of Ilneval, Ilneval’s Command and Multiattack—that together make its combat sequence surprisingly simple.
Foe Smiter grants an extra die of damage when the Blade hits with a longsword attack. Well, gosh golly, seems like the Blade will be favoring its longsword melee attack over its javelin ranged attack, then. The Blade’s Multiattack grants two weapon attacks (either both with longsword or both with javelin), plus one use of Ilneval’s Command, if that feature is available. Ilneval’s Command is a recharging ability that grants attack reactions to three of the Blade’s allies within 120 feet, a distance that allows the feature to work at battlefield scale.
Just about all we need to know about the orc Blade of Ilneval is right there: First, it charges up to the front line and fights there, using its longsword. Second, whenever it can, it also confers attack reactions on three of its allies at the end of its turn. The only other meaningful difference between a Blade and an ordinary orc is that it has slightly higher mental abilities. It can tell when a certain tactic isn’t working and make adjustments, it will lead the pre-combat parley (which, for orcs, consists mostly of taunting), and it prioritizes the targets that seem most threatening.
The orc Claw of Luthic is a support caster, although it can also do wicked melee damage with its claws, so it’s not going to hang back as spellcasters often do.
The key spells in the Claw’s arsenal are bestow curse, warding bond, bane, cure wounds and guiding bolt.
- Bestow curse is an interesting one. The Claw can sustain only one instance of it at a time but can cast it twice. Suppose it chooses the option to add necrotic damage to its attacks against the target. The Claw’s Multiattack grants it four melee attacks as long as it has half or
morefewer of its maximum hit points. Every one of those attacks, if it hits, will do an extra 1d8 hp necrotic damage. One way for the Claw to use this spell, therefore, is to cast it atcharge the desired target (who must make a DC 12 Wisdom saving throw against it, and the Claw has fairly high Wisdom itself, so it’s going to be choosy about its target, favoring enemies who seem likely to have low Wisdom, such as bards and rogues) using the Aggressive feature, then cast bestow curse upon him or her, and finally, on the following round, charge him or her (using the Aggressive feature) andmake a four-claw Multiattack, doing bonus necrotic damage with each strike. Against armor class 15, with +4 to hit, this does a total of 22 hp expected damage, 9 of which is necrotic. Not too shabby, especially against low-level enemies, but rather slow—it takes a full turn to set up, and if the Claw defeats its foe, it takes another turn to set up for the next one as well. Against mid-level or high-level opponents, it will probably choose instead to target a fighter already engaged by one of its allies with the turn-wasting option, which has greater impact the more Extra Attacks an opponent has. Or, since its Dexterity and Constitution are greater than its Strength, it may cast the disadvantage-on-attacks option against its own chosen opponent.
- Warding bond, cast on a more powerful ally, effectively lets the Claw take half the damage that would normally go to that ally; it also provides nominal boosts to AC and saving throws. Because it doesn’t need to be sustained, and because it’s useful right away and remains useful as long as it’s in effect, it’s the kind of spell a caster would normally cast first thing in a combat encounter. The trouble is, once again, it takes a full action! If a Claw uses its first turn to cast warding bond, its second to cast bestow curse and its third to charge, the combat encounter is already practically over, or well on its way to being over, at any rate. As the dungeon master, you can sleaze this by deciding that the Claw has already cast this spell on an ally before the combat begins, which means it has one fewer 2nd-level spell slot to work with, but if I were to do this, since I’m an honest sort of guy, I’d first want to make sure the Claw had some reason to expect that combat was soon to break out. Maybe the Claw casts this while its commander is parley-taunting. Maybe, in fact, part of the reason for the parley-taunting is to give the Claw cover while it casts warding bond? In any event, if the Claw is casting this spell within view of your player characters, they should be given a Wisdom (Perception) roll to notice it.
- Bane has to be sustained and therefore is no good if the Claw is sustaining bestow curse. However, since it targets Charisma rather than Wisdom, it may be useful as an alternative to bestow curse if the latter seems unlikely to take hold. If the Claw casts bane as an alternative to bestow curse, it may as well do so at bestow curse’s level (i.e., 3rd), allowing it to target five opponents.
- Cure wounds will be cast on any ally that’s seriously wounded, which I define as being reduced to 40 percent or fewer of its maximum hit points. If the target is a powerful ally, the Claw will cast cure wounds using a 2nd-level spell slot, since warding bond uses just one of these slots and can only be cast on one target at a time. If the target is a grunt, the Claw will use the normal 1st-level slot.
- Guiding bolt is a nice prelude to an Aggressive charge, doing an expected 7 hp of radiant damage and giving the Claw advantage on its next attack roll. It’s not quite as good as bestow curse, though, so the Claw will probably use this spell only if the combat encounter drags on and it runs out of higher-level spell slots.
The orc Hand of Yurtrus is also a spellcaster, whose role varies more between support and assault. It can cast silence or blindness/deafness to shut down enemy spellcasters (the former is absolute and affects a whole area; the latter allows a Constitution saving throw and affects only a single target, but it can be used against anyone, not just a spellcaster, and it gives him or her disadvantage on attack rolls and his or her opponent advantage on same). It can cast inflict wounds (the “bad touch”), boosted to 2nd level, to do 4d10 necrotic damage on a hit—much better than the 2d8 necrotic damage of the Hand’s normal melee attack, with a better to-hit modifier to boot. It can cast bane in the same manner as the orc Claw of Luthic, if there’s no spellcaster among its opponents who needs to be stifled.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the orc Hand of Yurtrus, I think, is that despite the Aggressive feature and its lack of any ranged attack, it’s not nearly as well-suited to toe-to-toe melee combat as orcs usually are. Of its physical abilities, only its Constitution is high. It doesn’t float like a butterfly or sting like a bee. All its damaging eggs are in the one basket labeled inflict wounds. So while it still charges its enemies, because that’s what orcs do, it’s relying on that single spell to take its opponents down rapidly. It will cast it twice using 2nd-level spell slots—three times, if there’s no need for silence, blindness/deafness or bane—then keep casting it at 1st level. It simply doesn’t have any other, better way to hurt its opponents, so it keeps using this one over and over.
The orc Nurtured One of Yurtrus has three distinctive features: Corrupted Carrier, Corrupted Vengeance and Nurtured One of Yurtrus. The first two, essentially, make the Nurtured One a walking plague bomb: as an action, it can voluntarily cease to exist and explode, splashing toxic bodily fluids over a 10-foot radius. If anyone in this radius fails a DC 13 Con save, he or she is poisoned, along with taking 4d6 damage. Being poisoned imposes disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks. In contrast, the Nurtured One’s claw melee attack—it gets only one per turn—does a measly 1d4 + 2 slashing plus 1d4 necrotic damage. The Nurtured One’s sole purpose on the battlefield is to sacrifice itself for the team. It charges into the midst of its enemies and detonates itself where it will contaminate at least two of them, preferably more. In contrast, Nurtured One of Yurtrus is kind of a pointless feature: it simply grants the Nurtured One advantage against being poisoned or infected by someone else’s filth. If the Nurtured One is fulfilling its intended purpose in combat, its opponents will never get a chance to do so.
The orc Red Fang of Shargaas is an assassin. Its Shargaas’s Sight and Veil of Shargaas features allow it to cast darkness at will, without the material components, and to see through the magical darkness unimpeded. Its Slayer feature gives it advantage on attacks against targets that haven’t taken a turn in combat yet, and any hit against a surprised target during this turn is a critical. Since its scimitar melee attack does more damage than its dart ranged attack, it will use this weapon if it can. The Red Fang, alone among orcs, doesn’t have the Aggressive feature, but the Dash bonus action of its Cunning Action feature has the exact same effect, so you can assume the Red Fang behaves the same way, Dashing (bonus action) toward its foe before Multiattacking with Slayer. It actually doesn’t help the Red Fang to drop darkness on its target before doing this. First, the advantage gained from attacking a blinded target is no better than the advantage gained from Slayer; second, although darkness might frighten and disorient the target, it removes the element of surprise, so that Slayer no longer turns hits into crits. Instead, the Red Fang uses darkness as a defense mechanism when its presence is already given away and it no longer has the element of surprise.
There is one other creature listed alongside the orc variants in Volo’s, the tanarukk. But the tanarukk is a straightforward “Rrrrrraaaaaahhhhh, stab stab stab” brute, whose features do nothing except increase its damage resistance and ferocity. It’s stupid and savage and has no self-preservation instinct, fighting until either its enemies are destroyed or it is. You can run this one on autopilot.
Next: gnolls, revisited.