Article: Orcus Revisited

Posted on March 9, 2011


The Orcus entry was updated on the 11th of March.

There have been two official takes on Orcus in 4th Edition (Monster Manual and E3: Prince of Undeath), but none of them created truly satisfying opponents. So I thought I would throw my proverbial hat into the ring and see what I could come up with. It was also an excuse to put my basic tips on solo monster design into action.

But all this begs the question, what is Orcus? Or to be more specific, what are the features and powers intrinsic to Orcus that we can use to create our version.

Orcus (1st Edition AD&D)

While I know he featured in earlier products, Orcus really came to prominence in the 1st Edition Monster Manual (which was actually the first ever D&D book I ever bought, back in 1984). He later returned in the Bloodstone series of Modules as the main antagonist (I love those adventures, not because they were great, far from it, just because they tried to cover the levels we were playing at). Early incarnations of Orcus were a bit low on hit points. I remember chatting to Gary Gygax about this and he remarked that at the time he was kicked out of TSR he was actually planning a book that revised all the Demon Lords, Archdukes and so forth giving them all d12’s for Hit Dice and max hit points per die. Sadly that book never came to fruition. Anyway, the key features of his 1st Edition incarnations are:

  • Punch/Slap: Noted that even a slap from Orcus was incredibly powerful. With my Orcus starting with the Wand and the Sword, his Punch would probably never get used. To counter that my initial idea was to have the Orcusword start to ‘Dance’ when Orcus is Bloodied. That frees up his hand for a Punch, and he also gains a Slap attack as a Triggered Action. I left in the Punch, but didn’t see any great benefit to keeping the Slap, since his Tail attack did much the same thing only better.
  • Wand of Death (aka. The Wand of Orcus): The classic instrument of death that killed those it touched…at least those below a certain measure of power. I knew I wanted to keep the fatality for the Final Word power, so I decided that the Wand itself would instead deal permanent damage AND have the ability to create/summon undead on a critical hit. I did like the idea of the Wand turning into a glowing green whip with a “Soul Stealer” ability to pull a target’s soul from their body (losing Encounter and Daily powers in the process), but it was dropped from the final cut.
  • Tail Attack: Poison dealing attack that was fast. Making it an easy fit for a Triggered Action.
  • Summon Undead: I folded this power into the Wand of Orcus, so that he summons an undead servant from tearing off part of the target’s soul when he crits with the Wand. One of the monsters from E3: Prince of Undeath seemed perfect for this role.
  • Gate Demons: It was pure coincidence that my own illustration of Orcus, done back in 2006 for the Immortals Handbook: Ascension, had him creating these magical pits with wraith-like monsters emerging from them. With 4E now allowing undead demons, I was able to choose another monster from the Prince of Undeath adventure, this time a minion, that seemed to fit perfectly.
  • The Orcusword: Definately the attack that gave me the most consternation (probably because its such an open book). I didn’t want to go with the lightning of the Balor’s sword (though I initially considered lightning + necrotic). I also had several ideas additional features of the sword: the ability to fight of its own accord and ‘dance’ when Orcus is bloodied and a “Crack of Doom” power that deals damage like a Wall attack but opens a great fiery chasm.

Orcus (2nd Edition D&D)

Orcus gets himself killed at the end of the Bloodstone series and the designers of 2nd Edition decided to let that death stand as edition canon. Of course then they decided to resurrect him from the dead in the Dead Gods supermodule. Initially he comes back and has access to magic called the Final Word which can even kill gods.

  • Final Word: I decided that Orcus would still retain a fraction of this power. I made it a ranged attack (as opposed to Touch of Death) so that  it also gives Orcus the ability to deal with troublesome enemies too cowardly to face him in melee.

Orcus (3rd Edition D&D)

Orcus became one of the central bad guys of D&D again though for some inexplicable reason he now has completely red skin (where previously he had pale white skin like a blood drained corpse) and is well toned (where before he was fat).

  •  Gore: The gore attack sort of made sense while he was only Large size, but at Gargantuan size its just impractical. Instead I replaced it with a stomp attack, so that he can still charge around the battlefield.

Orcus (4th Edition)

In a clever move, WotC made Orcus THE poster boy for D&D villainy, he’s a cool villain so why not. He now also doubled in height to gargantuan (which wasn’t as completely out of the blue as you might think since he was bigger (than his usual 15 feet) in the Throne of Bloodstone module when encountered on his home plane. Presumably this was done to make him seem more impressive when standing next to the ‘Balrog-ified’ Balor who was now also bigger than before. Orcus gained two new features in 4th Edition, his Aura of Death and a Necrotic Pulse. With several other features being folded into new or similar powers.

  • Aura of Death: Kept this but massively upped the damage.
  • Necrotic Pulse: I never really liked this power, far too vanilla. So it morphed into the “Howl of Anguish”, Triggered Action
  • Shard of Evil: Too adventure specific. I decided not to feature this plot device.

So there you have the key elements of Orcus. Yes he did also have a bunch of spell-like abilities back in the day, yes he did get some unique spells (for his cult) back in the Book of Vile Darkness, as well as start wearing that cool looking golden gauntlet. But I was already up to my neck in powers so a lot of stuff had to get cut.

Orcus (Krust Edition)

I couldn’t resist not adding a few ideas  of my own into the mix.

  • Curse of Brittle Bones: Inspired by the Mighty Thor story where the Death Goddess Hela curses Thor. This also gave me a chance to introduce my new Fragile condition.
  • Dark Prayer: Triggered Action (Encounter: Triggered when Orcus is reduced to 25% Hit Points), Orcus buries the Orcusword in the ground, descends on one knee and unleashes all his dark power in one necromantic ritual, A fortitude attack, where every enemy on the battlefield takes damage equal to their bloodied value, Half on a Miss. I’m wondering if anyone killed by the attack becomes one of the undead (same as those created by the Wand on a crit).
  • Wing Block: Inspired by the cartoon Batfink. Basically a limited (2) use ‘get out of jail free card’ for Orcus. Allowing him to escape from especially damaging attacks.
  • Wraith Armour: Okay, not that happy with how this turned out, but I just thought ‘stop stalling and get it out there’.

Here is a list of ideas for powers I dropped from the final version:

  • Crack of Doom: Standard Action (Recharge 5 6), Orcus slashes his sword into the ground, causing the floor to explode (5d10 + 25; half on a miss) across a 4 wide; 30 long ‘wall’ that creates a zone lasting to the end of the encounter.
  • Dance of Death: Triggered Action (Encounter: Triggered when Orcus is Bloodied), The Orcusword fights under its own power. It can move anywhere on the battlefield.
  • Death From Above: Move Action (Recharge 5 6), Orcus takes to the skies (teleporting outside the ceiling if need be), then crashes back down to the ground creating a mighty shockwave. Close Burst 10; 5d10 + 25 Thunder damage and targets are knocked prone. Half damage on a miss.
  • Slap: Triggered Action (At Will), Anyone attacking him gets a slap, 3d10 + 15 damage and the target is slid 10 squares.
  • Soul Stealer: Standard Action (Recharge 5 6), The Wand becomes a glowing green whip, snaring the targets soul. Melee 10, 6d10 + 30 permanent damage and the target is unable to use Encounter or Daily powers (save ends).

…Last Word

I hope you enjoy my take on Orcus, either way let me know what you think. Yes, I know the write up is more spartan than I’d have in a publication, there probably are a few typos and I still believe he could be improved with a tweak here and there (not happy with stomp or wraith armour at the moment and the bonus feature of the Dark Prayer power suggested above could be cool), but its not a bad first attempt. So without further ado (and as ever, click on the pages for a larger version)…