OSR: Invading Orcs, Part 1

I don't have Orcs in my setting... yet.

They exist, but they haven't been defined. They live somewhere beyond the edge of the map. Spend a few months in a major city and you may meet someone who has met someone who seen them. At the moment they are remote and inconsequential.That may change.

I'm not going to use them as bandits or raiders; I've got people for that. A medieval setting has no shortage of small hostile bands. I'm going to use the orcs as invaders.

Stanton Feng
Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. 
The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; 
A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: 
And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. 
And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. 
-Deuteronomy 28:48-52

In the same year, for our sins, there came unknown tribes. No one knew who they were or what was their origin, faith, or tongue, and some people called them Tartars, while others called them Taurmens, and sill some others called them Pechenegs. Some say that these are the people of who Methodius of Patar spoke and that they came came from the Yetrian Desert, which is between the North and East. [...] Only God knows who these people are or from whence they came. The wise men, who understand the Books, know who they are, but we do not.
In this way did God bring confusion upon us and an endless number of people perished. This evil event came to pass on the day of Jeremiah the Prophet, the 31st day of May. As for the Tartars, they turned back from the Dnieper, and we know neither from whence they came nor whither they have gone now. Only God knows that, for he brought them upon us for our sins. 
-The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, covering the arrival of the Mongols in Russia

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests. 
-Iain M. Banks
Justin Sweet
The fear of invasion and subjugation by an unknown power is very, very old. Everything seems to be going well. Your enemies are known; their methods and tactics are predictable and match yours. You are focused on a hundred different local issues. And then, just as you are preparing for the summer campaign, your rivals turn up at your doorstep and beg for help. Your rivals say their cities were attacked by an unknown enemy, using tactics and tools unknown in this region. The enemy achieved total, uncontested victory.

So you put aside centuries of tradition and ride out with your rivals. A grand alliance. If this were a different sort of story - a heroic allegory, a national myth - you'd succeed, but you don't. Your armies are engulfed and destroyed. 

Maybe the enemy disappears. You have no idea who they were or why they came or when they'll be back. It's what the Novgorodians thought of the Mongols. It's presumably what people in Persia and India thought of Alexander the Great. Or maybe they stick around and rule for a few years or a few centuries. Maybe they never leave.

These days, we need to rely on aliens or demons or whatever to get the same effect. Our world is known and mapped. Hordes cannot ride over the horizon. Everyone's potential enemies are mapped and categorized. But in a medieval setting, where the world is small and badly mapped, the fear of a hostile nation arriving and destroying the local order is always present. It has happened before. It may happen again.
KILART (choe, heonhwa)

The Invaders

They slam into your existing setting like a sledgehammer.

1d10 Above all other tools, they prize... They are heralded by...
1 Horses. Smoke on the horizon.
2 Bows. Thick, unnatural fog.
3 Whips. The sound of distant thunder.
4 Spears. Refugees.
5 Trained war-beasts. Wildfires.
6 Swords. Rain and hail.
7 Siege engines. A strange smell in the air.
8 Magic. A maimed captive tied to a horse.
9 Handguns. Nothing - they attack by day.
10 Cannons. Nothing - they attack by night.

1d10 They wear... They are adorned with...
1 Next to nothing. Piercings and scars.
2 Dyed cloth. Gold and silver trinkets.
3 Stinking furs and rotting leather. Bone idols.
4 Strange cloth, woven by an unknown art. Brightly coloured paint.
5 Plates of bone or chitin. Long, braided hair.
6 Thick padded cloth, sewn into patterns. Wild, unkempt hair.
7 Wooden armour, as strong as steel. Grisly trophies.
8 Bands of leather and iron. Feathered cloaks and helmets.
9 Metal armour, thick and crude. A simple design or mark, repeated.
10 Metal armour, lighter and stronger than ours. Glass beads and gems.

1d10 Rumours say they are... They seek...
1 The harbingers of the apocalypse. All the gold and silver we have.
2 Numbered beyond counting. All the gold and silver we have and all that we can mine.
3 Summoned from the earth, not born. All our food and livestock.
4 Creatures without fear, hunger, or mercy. A rare but worthless tree, herb, or plant.
5 A nation briefly mentioned in our holy texts. Our children and warriors, to serve in their armies.
6 The invited guests of our ancient enemies. To replace our rulers in all respects.
7 A scourge sent by heaven to punish us. To tear down our churches and destroy our religion.
8 Seeking vengence for an ancient wrong. A rare but worthless mineral or gem we sometimes find.
9 Messengers from a new god. To exteriminate us.
10 Demons clothed in flesh, escaped from Hell. The destruction of our cities and towns, down to the last stone.

Weta Workshop
Much like the Plague, an Invasion has several stages.

1. About to Happen
2. In Progress
3. Just Past

1. About to Happen

The PCs get 1d6 days of warning, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. On a 1, the Invasion arrives at nightfall the same day.

See the "Heralded by..." table above. One thing precedes the invasion. It is unnatural, unseasonable, and worrying. The PCs won't know what is happening, but they will know something is happening.

2. In Progress

The Invasion arrives.

Exactly how it arrives will depends on the nature of the Invaders. They might use scouts. They might open with a bombardment, a carpet of cavalry, a spell, a mass raising of the dead, a furious charge, or an endless column of foot troops. Their way of making war is the rock to your scissors. They outnumber you.

If the PCs are in a city, the city is besieged. If the PCs are in a village, the village is burned. If the PCs are in the wilderness, outrider groups, scouts, or roving bands of soldiers search for wealth and resistance.

The PCs have never seen anything like the Invaders. They have no frame of reference. They do not share a language, a religion, or a worldview. If the Invaders have magic, it is not like the local magic. If they have beasts, they are not like the local beasts. Ideally, they aren't even creatures the players know, to reinforce the unknown and inexplicable nature of the enemy.

Side Note: A slow marching pace is 3 miles per hour. On level ground, on a clear day, the horizon is about 3 miles away. Isn't that convenient? Of course, most armies move considerably quicker, but an entire block of troops could be invisible one hour and on top of you the next.

Chances are good the PCs won't have sufficient resources to fight the Invasion directly. When armies start tearing the setting apart, the PCs have a very limited number of options if they want to survive (and many options if they want to die).

I. Survive the Initial Assault
Someone sets the PCs' house on fire. Chaos, confusion. Warriors in the streets, cutting down civilians indiscriminately. The gates are breached. The siege collapses. Screaming and flames.

Run standard combat encounters with groups of two or three enemies, or run a decision tree like Deep Carbon Observatory's. The PCs should find transportation and escape or find a place to hide until the chaos subsides and the killings end. Swimming across a river, grabbing fast horses, dubious teleport scrolls will get them away from the initial invasion, but they are not out of danger. Hiding might work, depending on what the Invaders are after, but running gives you more options.

II. Evade Capture
Even if the Invaders are after something else, they will seek to contain and control the local population. An ordered, numbered, contained, and disarmed population is a pacified population. Rebels will be executed in public as a warning to others.

This is a slow, cautious phase for the PCs. Resource management becomes important. Did the PCs grab any supplies when they escaped? Starvation and disease are allies of the Invaders. The landscape changes. Safe roads become deathtraps. Inns and strongholds become barracks. Landmarks to gallows. Roving patrols, wandering idle soldiers, bizzare construction projects, fields of labourers, caravans of loot moving back to some unknowable destination.

III. Evaluate the Invaders
The Invaders gradually move being an incomprehensible force to a comprehensible force to an accepted part of life. The PCs can study them, learn their goals, learn their culture. Who holds power, and how is it exercised? What do the want, in detail? They aren't Lovecraftian monsters or truly unknowable forces.

Knowing what they want and sympathizing with it are two very different things. You might understand why the Invaders want skulls - the cultural goals, the biological needs, the complex alliances - but this may not make you any more likely to give up your skull.

3. Just Past

Once the PCs understand the Invaders they can begin to profit by them. Meet the new boss, not so different from the old boss. Local interpreters, guides, and hunters will always be valuable to the Invaders. The bleakest option are hunting down people who escaped the initial massacre, assisting in the next invasion, or directly enforcing the new rules. Depending on what the Invaders want, the PCs could also mine, trade, scout, hunt monsters, offer advice, and meddle with the usual PC nonsense.

In a heroic game, fighting the Invaders directly is viable, but again, this isn't that sort of game. You can definitely make them leave and make them lose, but you can't do it by killing them one at a time in D&D-scale combat. You need a very good, very complex plan.
Andrius Matijosius

The Invaders Have A Plan

And it's a very simple plan. It's been used for thousands of years. If you want to control a group of people and make them serve your interests rather than their own:
1. Disrupt the existing order, usually by killing a lot of people.
2. Insert yourself into existing structure and impose new structures.
3. Do not allow the old order to reform.

This applies to both social and economic structures. The Mongols ride into your lands and burn your cities. They send your best artisans, artists, musicians, and poets back to their capital and mix them in with captives from other nations. (1) Law, food, daily life, rituals, and status all come from the Mongols. (2). Captives are kept busy. New social groups and microcultures form, but in a Mongol-dominated environment. (3).
Colonialists... interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits. 
-Richard G
Before the Invaders, you had a method for punishing criminals. Now you have one - and it could be the same - but it needs to go through an Invader. You had a system for determining the ownership of land. Now you have a new one, in the language of the Invader. You traded in one kind of coin. Now, you trade in their coin, buy from their merchants, sell to their soldiers.

They will do their best to suppress any local structures that they cannot infiltrate and control. Religion is often the first to go. Break down cultural and familial ties. Take children from their homes and raise them in new areas. If a culture or group has something that makes them distinct - dietary laws, costumes, languages - ban or restrict it. Punish dissent. Destroy or co-opt charismatic leaders, centers of belief, and rallying points.

These things aren't necessarily evil or good. The Invaders might have a nuanced view of their own actions, or they might be ruthlessly pragmatic, or they might consider their actions justified by religion, civilization, or economics. They could replace a cruel hierarchy with a meritocracy or religious oppression with benign toleration.

But the Invaders will always try to benefit. They are not changing the world for you. If you were deeply invested in the old system, they are almost certainly evil.

In the next post, I'll cover reasons for invasion, possible encounters, and the Orcs of my setting.


  1. "
    How Do We Get Rich?
    The short answer is "You don't." The system does not work in your favour unless you are high in the hierarchy.

    The long answer is "You don't, unless you have a plan." PCs should always have a plan.
    " -you https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.ca/2017/06/osr-death-taxes-and-death-taxes.html

    so when the invaders are said and done they'll be rich.

    1. In some cases, yes. If their goal isn't to get rich, they might not care. And their standards of "rich" might be radically different from the PCs'. These guys showed up and all they want is this one plant. They don't care about our giant stone head currency or our art. They just want this plant.

    2. yes, but wealth is a tool to get what you want, and if all they want is the plant, then they are rich in the all the wealth they care about.

      but that's the benign case; time for politics: Identity politics

      Disrupt the existing order:
      use identifiers to separate and cause fragmentation among the population

      Insert yourself into existing structure and impose new structures.
      the corruption of classical liberalism; zhe and zer.

      Do not allow the old order to reform.
      Religion is the first to go.
      If a culture or group has something that makes them distinct - Freedom of speech, of thought, to reason - ban or restrict it.
      Punish dissent.
      Destroy or co-opt charismatic leaders, centers of belief, and rallying points. just want to point out the response to trump would be in line with this.

      They could replace a cruel hierarchy with a meritocracy or religious oppression with benign toleration. Or the opposite.

      If you were deeply invested in the old system, they are almost certainly evil.


    3. Sorry, not entirely sure I follow you.

    4. He’s claiming that a conspiracy exists to discredit Donald Trump using the tactics of your hypothetical imperialist orcs. Also he seems to think that transgender people are some sort of psychological warfare weapon to erase western culture? Basically society is being subverted by the “cultural marxists” (Jews. He thinks a Jewish conspiracy is trying to ruin the world for white people).

    5. Not exactly. Part of the reason we study history is because the forces that cause something to occur can cause it to occur again. I was noting the parallels between the methodology of Social Justice Warriors and the methodology of invaders.

      Note that there are things that you say that I disagree with:
      " (Jews. He thinks a Jewish conspiracy is trying to ruin the world for white people). "
      instead I would like to point you to a quote from the article:
      " Religion is often the first to go. "
      the 'cultural Marxists' (excellent term by the way) do not like Judaism, thought as the the article mentioned are more than happy to co-opt any structure or group they can get their hands on. I do not believe there is any jewish conspiracy at play here, Marx's disciples do not need their help.

      I'm actually somewhat surprised you called out Marx here, as tracing his ideas to identity politics has to be traced though buried historical connections.

    6. I know you may have been misinformed, but “the SJWs” you referring simply don’t exist. It’s a political smear word designed to malign specifically the American political left by implying there is some large organized group trying to “destroy the west” (read: institute progressive political policies”.

      “Cultural Marxism” is similarly an absurd conspiracy theory. It is literally a piece of 1930’s-1940’s era Nazi propaganda asserting a secret Jewish-Communist cabal is attempting to destroy the Aryan race with miscegenation and left-wing revolutions.

      The original Nazi version of the conspiracy theory was called Cultural Bolshevism and can be read up on here under the “Criticisms of the Frankfurt School Theorists” heading, sub-subheading “Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Theory”:

      I know it’s tempting to try to understand the world in the form of some great clash between the forces of good and evil, but the idea that there is some concerted effort between groups like the “Cultural Marxists” and “SJWs” to destroy something as nebulous as “Western Culture” is absurd. It is literally the conspiracy theory that drive the Nazis to kill millions of Jews and Political dissidents in WWII and was the stated reason behind the massacre committed by white supremicists terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik.

      Long story short: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” wasn’t true. There is no grand conspiracy to destroy binary gender or kill white people. It would probably make the internet a less toxic place if you were to stop spreading the political opinions of Heinrich Himmler.

      (The reason I mentioned Marxism was because the Nazi high command was pretty sure the ideology was secretly run by Jews when they invaded Russia.)

    7. Seriously? I should have looked up Cultrual Marxism; I might have wrong to use it as I did not know the history of it's use.

      I was trying to map a scenario to a historical scenario to note the similarities. there was no way I wasn't going to get it wrong, I was just hoping to get it affably wrong. round peg in square hole.

      Ironically Fascism either was supposed to be or is a critique of marxism, so hearing about how hitler was paranoid about it amuses me to no end.

    8. It’s totally fine! I didn’t mean to imply that you were doing anything wrong by applyin the ideas to a real life political situation, I just disagreed with the specific things you were comparing. Don’t let me discourage you from commenting in the future about all of Skerples’s Medieval-societyanimal-people/murder-dungeon weirdness.

  2. boy, i wish this wasn't based on real life

    1. Real life is difficult like that.

    2. Man, you sure kicked the hornets nest, huh? The current sad state of society is that you can't even base something off history without crazy people coming out of the woods to accuse you of some nefarious agenda. Real life and history is a bloody, muddy, horrific thing and often more disturbing and terrifying than any fiction.

  3. This is one of the most inspiring blog posts I've read in a while, and I read an AWFUL lot. Great work!

  4. This is the endgame plan i have in (one of my) settings: The Orcs are worshippers of Conquest, the Exiled Horsemen, from beyond the Known World, The Pc's have already met a first expedition of the Orcish forces and repelled them. But just like the first colonist, the rumors of land, whealth, and ungodly land will drive the Orcs to the east, towards the "Known World". I hope this series will help me consolidate the plan for future use. Will be looking at it

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  6. Very nice, reminds me of this one quote from the Witcher books, "Not this war, Geralt. After this war, no-one returns. There will be nothing to return to. Nilfgaard leaves behind it only rubble; its armies advance like lava from which no-one escapes. The roads are strewn, for miles, with gallows and pyres; the sky is cut with columns of smoke as long as the horizon. Since the beginning of the world, in fact, nothing of this sort has happened before. Since the world is our world... You must understand that the Nilfgaardians have descended from their mountains to destroy this world."

  7. Was this post, by any chance, inspired by this one? http://dungeonofsigns.blogspot.com/2013/10/whats-needed-for-setting.html

    It's about setting design in general, but the example setting is exactly this sort of thing. You've reiterated a lot of the same ideas, which is pretty cool, and I'm incorporating them into my own campaign. My players have encountered parties of silent, gray, fire-wielding horse archers a few times now, and I think I've got their interest.

    1. Not directly, but it's a good idea. I'll link to it in my next post. Gus covers a setting post-invasion, when the order of the world has settled into a new form. I'm trying to write stuff about the invasion itself, when the order of the world is in flux.

  8. You try this kind of thing, IME, and your players will always disgust you with how seamlessly they slide into kissing heels and abducting their former neighbors' babies for the slave market, and then they say "well, you gave us no choice," uh....