Orc Tactics

With orcs, I continue my examination of the cannon-fodder humanoid monsters of Dungeons & Dragons. Actually, orcs have always been somewhat tougher than goblins and kobolds, but they remain one of the undistinguished stock foes of low-level D&D parties. How does the fifth edition of D&D make orcs unique?

Unlike goblins and kobolds, orcs are strong and tough. They’re not very smart—their behavior is largely driven by instinct—but they possess average Wisdom and decent Dexterity. They have the Aggressive feature, which allows them to move their full speed toward a hostile creature as a bonus action, effectively allowing them to Dash, then Attack. And, curiously, they possess a social skill (Intimidation +2). Their standard melee weapon, the greataxe, deals damage that can be deadly to a level 1 character.

These are no hit-and-run skirmishers or snipers. Orcs are brutes. They’ll charge, they’ll fight hand-to-hand, and they’ll retreat only with the greatest reluctance when seriously wounded. (Being fanatical valuers of physical courage, orcs—unlike most creatures—are more willing to fight to the death.)

The Aggressive feature applies almost exclusively to one situation: when a group of orcs is between 30 and 60 feet away from the player characters. As a dungeon master, you should therefore assume that first contact with a group of orcs always takes place at this distance, that the orcs will be initially hostile, and that they’ll charge the second they decide talking is boring. However, the fact that orcs have any social skill at all—even if it’s just Intimidation—suggests that there ought to be some opportunity to interact before combat begins.

Any parley with the orcs will be brief (no more than a handful of chances to cajole, bluff or bully them) and somewhat one-sided, as the orcs will issue nothing but demands and threats. At this point, any hostile action on the PCs’ party, including moving closer than 30 feet for any reason, will end the parley immediately and initiate combat. But a smooth talker may be able to stave off an attack by making a Charisma (Persuasion) check with disadvantage—against DC 15, say, or maybe DC 20 if the orcs are there for a specific purpose, such as guarding something or staking a territorial claim. If it succeeds, the orcs’ attitude will shift from hostile to indifferent; if it fails, however, give the party only one more chance to successfully reach a détente. The PCs may also try to bluff their way past the orcs by making a Charisma (Deception) check with disadvantage (no disadvantage if they’ve been talked into indifference), opposed by the orcs’ Intelligence or Wisdom, depending on the nature of the bluff. If they succeed, the orcs will believe their lie. If the lie fails, however, the orcs will attack immediately. Finally, a PC may try to threaten back! Have the player make a DC 20 Charisma (Intimidation) check, opposed by a Wisdom check for the orcs. If the player and the orcs both succeed, the orcs appraise the situation, attacking immediately if they’re stronger than the party but retreating if they’re weaker. (Before the encounter begins, use the table on page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to determine which side is stronger. If the orcs’ adjusted experience points would make them a Deadly encounter for the party, they’re stronger; otherwise, they’re weaker.) If the player succeeds on his or her Intimidation check and the orcs fail their Wisdom check, the orcs are rattled, their attitude shifts to indifferent, and the player gets advantage on his or her next use of a social skill with the orcs. If the player fails, the orcs attack.

Orcs initiate combat by charging, using Aggressive (bonus action) plus their movement to close the distance between themselves and the party’s front line, followed immediately by Attack (action) with their greataxes. From this point on, it’s a slugfest. As long as the orcs aren’t seriously injured (6 hp or fewer), they’ll keep fighting, using their Attack action every round and moving on to the next PC back if they hew down one in the front line. If there’s a PC between 30 and 60 feet past the one the orc has just felled, it will have a chance to use Aggressive (bonus action) again—so why not? This should create a moment of excitement in your session and put a healthy fear of orcs into your archers and casters.

Despite their aggression and stupidity, even orcs know when they’re overmatched. Depending on how you, the DM, believe that this particular group of orcs should act, a seriously injured orc may be willing to fight to the death for honor’s sake, or it may possess more of a will to survive, in which case it will Disengage (action) and retreat its full movement distance. (My own inclination is to have orcs that see their fellows retreating successfully be more willing to retreat themselves, while orcs whose fellows have been slain will fight to the death themselves.) An orc that finds itself fighting two or more foes rather than just one will try to reposition itself so that has to fight only one, if possible. Since this will always involve moving out of at least one opponent’s reach, there are three possible ways: Dodge (action), then reposition (move); Disengage (action), then reposition (move); or reposition (move), risking an opportunity strike, then Attack (action). The first two, frankly, strike me as un-orc-like, while the third strikes me as very orc-like. If there’s no way for the orc to evade its extra attackers without their simply closing with it again, then Disengage (action) and retreat (move) seems like the most likely response—either that or, if its fellows have been slain, fiercely fighting to the death.

The fact that a group of orcs has retreated does not mean combat is over. The ones who live will long for payback. Orcs aren’t stealthy, so they won’t stalk the characters, but they’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for the PCs as long as they’re in that vicinity. If they re-encounter the PCs, and if the PCs seem to be weakened in any way, the orcs will seize the moment and attack—once again, using Aggressive (bonus action) to charge in and strike the first blows.

The Monster Manual lists several orc variants that may appear in encounters with intermediate-level PCs. The orog is a much stronger, tougher and smarter variant with many more hit points and two swings per Attack action. Ordinary orcs aren’t smart enough to strategize, but orogs are. A group of orcs that includes one or more orogs and that knows the PCs are in the area won’t go after them right away but rather will wait until nightfall, to take advantage of the orcs’ darkvision: in darkness, PCs who lack darkvision will be effectively blinded and will attack with disadvantage, while the orcs will have advantage when attacking them. Orogs will also have the sense to Disengage (action) before repositioning in melee combat and may even order regular orcs to do the same. However, their Wisdom is no higher than that of a regular orc, so they’ll be prone to the same “death before dishonor” attitude when they’re low on hit points.

An orc war chief is an extremely formidable opponent, even more so than an orog. It possesses the orog’s Strength and Constitution, a high Charisma, less Intelligence than an orog but more than an average orc, Multiattack ability, and proficiency bonuses on several types of saving throws, plus two fearsome features: Gruumsh’s Fury and Battle Cry.

Gruumsh’s Fury is a passive feature that increases the orc war chief’s weapon damage by 1d8 on every hit. This doesn’t affect its tactics at all; it simply makes the orc war chief a wicked effective damage dealer. The real game-changer is Battle Cry, a once-per-day power that gives the orc war chief’s warriors advantage on attack rolls for the next turn. The effectiveness of Battle Cry is maximized when it can buff the greatest number of orcs. Therefore, there’s no reason at all for the orc war chief to wait to use it, save one: the war chief has to forgo its own Attack to use it, because Battle Cry is an action. The cost/benefit analysis hinges on which is expected to do more damage: a horde of orcs with advantage or a single orc war chief swinging his greataxe.

By itself, an orc war chief, with +6 to hit, has a 70 percent chance to hit an AC 13 opponent. It does an average of 15 hp of damage with every hit, and it gets two swings per Attack action. Therefore, its expected damage per round is 21 hp. A regular orc, with +5 to hit, has a 65 percent chance to hit an AC 13 opponent; it does an average of 9.5 hp of damage with every hit, and it gets only one chance per round. Ordinarily, therefore, its expected damage per round is 6.2 hp. If the orc attacks with advantage, however, its chance to hit increases from 65 percent to 88 percent, so its expected damage increases to 8.3 hp. In short, giving a single orc advantage on its attack roll increases its expected damage by about 2.1 hp. From this, we can determine that the orc war chief will prefer to use Battle Cry rather than Attack when it commands a force of at least 10 ordinary orcs.

Would an orc war chief have any way to calculate this? No. It would simply know intuitively, from its battlefield experience (which comes mostly from fighting other orcs, who have AC 13), that issuing a Battle Cry before charging seems to make a difference in a group of 10 or more orc warriors, while in a smaller group, it doesn’t.

All that being said, the Battle Cry action also allows the orc war chief to make a single attack as a bonus action, meaning that if it’s already next to an enemy, it’s giving up only one of its two potential attacks. So if the war chief is fighting alongside five or more other orcs, but fewer than 10, it will still use Battle Cry—after the band of orcs has already charged.

Last, there’s the orc Eye of Gruumsh, a battlefield cleric. Smarter and wiser than an ordinary orc but not any stronger or tougher, the Eye of Gruumsh is distinguished most by its spellcasting ability. (It also has Gruumsh’s Fury, but again, this is a passive feature whose only function is to increase weapon damage—though this makes more of a difference for the Eye of Gruumsh than for the war chief, because the Eye of Gruumsh uses only a spear, not a greataxe.) The variety of spells at its disposal potentially makes the Eye of Gruumsh’s combat strategy much more complex, so we need to take a look at the effects and effectiveness of each spell and how it fits into the Eye of Gruumsh’s action economy.

One spell stands out: spiritual weapon. Unlike all the Eye of Gruumsh’s other spells, this one is cast as a bonus action and, in addition, gives the caster a new bonus action to use every round. This completely changes the Eye of Gruumsh’s action economy. The Eye of Gruumsh still charges with all the other orcs, because otherwise, its Aggressive feature would be wasted. But on its second combat round it casts spiritual weapon as a bonus action, and on every subsequent round (up to the spell’s 1-minute duration) it continues to use its bonus action, again and again, to attack tougher or harder-to-reach opponents with the Floating Spear of Glowy Force.

The question now is, what does the Eye of Gruumsh do with its action? A preoccupied DM may easily forget that as long as the Eye of Gruumsh is concentrating on spiritual weapon, it can’t cast any other spell that requires concentration; this scratches guidance, resistance and bless off the list. Bless is a strong spell, but it doesn’t provide bonus actions the way spiritual weapon does, so on the basis of action economy alone, it has to take a backseat. Stephen White correctly points out that spiritual weapon doesn’t require concentration, so even while that spell is up and running, the Eye of Gruumsh can still cast bless, guidance or resistance, of which bless is clearly the strongest. (Which of its companions would the Eye of Gruumsh bless? Orcs aren’t exactly altruistic. I’d say it would first take a blessing for itself, then give one to the orc war chief, if there is one, then to any other individual that stands out in the group.)

Augury takes a full minute to cast and has no purpose in combat. Thaumaturgy is interesting, but one has to consider its primary application to be during the parley phase, when the orcs are trying to maximize their fearsomeness. That leaves command.

Command can have a tide-of-battle-swinging effect. One possible beneficial outcome of command is that a PC may be forced into a position that gives his or her opponent advantage on an attack that occurs before the PC can act. (If the PC acts first, the command is wasted: he or she simply stands back up.) Another is that a PC, ordered to flee, may be subjected to one or more opportunity attacks.

But first, let’s look at what the Eye of Gruumsh gives up by doing this: its Attack action. Against AC 13 (what most orcs are used to, as mentioned above), with +5 to hit, the Eye of Gruumsh has a 65 percent chance of doing an average of 11 hp of damage, for an expected damage per round of 7.2 hp. Therefore, for the Eye of Gruumsh to forgo an Attack action in favor of casting command, the effect of the spell needs to inflict expected damage of at least 8 hp.

As we saw previously, giving an ordinary orc advantage on an attack roll increases its expected damage by about 2 hp. That’s not enough for the Eye of Gruumsh to give up its own Attack action. What about an orog? Still not enough: the damage increase is about the same, although it is doubled because of the orog’s Multiattack. An orc war chief? Now it starts to get interesting, because the war chief does so much damage with each hit. But the increase in expected damage from attacking with advantage turns out to be surprisingly small: only about 3 hp per attack, or 6 hp altogether. And, of course, the Eye of Gruumsh can’t benefit from ordering a foe of its own to kneel, because of the sequence of initiative no, not because of the sequence of initiative, but because it gives up one Attack action to gain advantage on the next, which gives it no net additional attack rolls and can actually result in less damage being done. In addition, we have to remember that the target of a command gets to make a saving throw, so all of these gains are attenuated by the probability that the target will shrug it off.

But what if, by ordering an enemy to flee, the Eye of Gruumsh can provoke multiple opportunity attacks on that enemy? This is a totally different ballgame. For starters, opportunity attacks are reactions, meaning we’re adding yet another new element to the action economy. Also, this isn’t about the difference between attacking with advantage and attacking without it anymore—it’s about the difference between getting an attack and not getting an attack. One orc’s expected damage per attack is 6.2 hp—not as much as the Eye of Gruumsh’s expected damage per attack—but two orcs’ expected damage is double that, and three orcs’ expected damage is triple that, and so on. An orog’s expected damage per attack is 7.4 hp, and an orc war chief’s is a whopping 10.5. The command’s chance of success is only 50/50 even against an average person, so we have to figure that there need to be several orcs on hand to make opportunity attacks for this stunt to be worth trying. So here’s our conclusion: An orc Eye of Gruumsh will forgo its own Attack action in order to cast command against a foe that’s within reach of four or more ordinary orcs, or two or more plus a leader. It will issue the command “Scram!” in order to provoke an opportunity attack from every orc that can reach the target.

In summary:

  • A group of orcs will initiate parley against a party that approaches between 30 and 60 feet of them, although this “parley” will consist mainly of demands, threats and taunting on their part.
  • As soon as talk breaks down, the orcs will use their Aggressive feature (bonus action) to charge the party (move), then Attack (action). On subsequent rounds, they will continue to Attack (action) the same target or, if that target is killed, move on to another, using Aggressive (bonus action) again to reach an archer or caster between 30 and 60 feet away.
  • If reduced to 6 hp or fewer, they will Disengage (action) and retreat (move) unless other orcs they’ve been fighting alongside have been killed, in which case they themselves will fight to the death.
  • If attacked by more than one enemy, an orc will move to a position where it can fight only one, if possible. It will not Disengage, instead risking one or more opportunity attacks in order to retain its own Attack action.
  • Orcs that have retreated will seek an opportunity to attack again while the party is weak.
  • An orog fights the same way as a regular orc, except that it will Disengage (action) when repositioning itself. A group of orcs containing one or more orogs will prefer to attack under cover of darkness, if given a choice.
  • An orc war chief commanding 10 or more other orcs will use Battle Cry (action) in the same round that the orcs charge, then charge himself on the following round. An orc war chief commanding five to nine other orcs will charge first, then use Battle Cry (action) on its second round, then make one attack against its chosen enemy (bonus action).
  • An orc Eye of Gruumsh will charge with other orcs. On its second round, it will cast spiritual weapon (bonus action), then Attack (action). On its third round, it will cast bless (action) on itself and up to two other orc leaders, then attack with its spiritual weapon (bonus action). On subsequent rounds, it will Attack (action), then make a second attack with its spiritual weapon (bonus action). While concentrating on bless, it will cast command (action) on an enemy that is engaged by four or more ordinary orcs or two or more plus an orog or orc war chief, ordering the enemy to flee and thus potentially provoking opportunity attacks against him or her.

Next: Lizardfolk.

23 thoughts on “Orc Tactics

  1. Nicely written, one point of clarification though: Spiritual Weapon does not require concentration. That does open up other spell options for the Eye of Gruumsh.

    Also, a very solid tactical use of Command would be for the Eye to “fall short” in approaching an enemy line then command a weak looking character to “Approach”. Not only does this potentially split the party (especially so if its not a typical front line character) but it gives the Eye his own personal target to destroy … or have his friends surround and destroy. Additionally, since the target has to take the “shortest and most direct route” on the approach, they will likely provoke opportunity attacks doing so.

  2. Thanks for helpful insights. I suggest that the numbers need mild adjustment, and some thoughts about other AC possibilities. The adjustment is to consider crits (which favors the high numbers of orcs). My calculations are as follows: AC 11: war chief av. 25.2, orcs without adv. is 7.45, with adv. increase of +1.82875, so 14 orcs makes it worth it. AC 13: WC av 22.2, O goes up 2.11375 from 6.5, so 11 is worth it. AC 15: WC av 19.2, O goes up over 2.2 from 5.55, 9 is worth it. AC 17: WC av 16.2, O goes up over 2.11 from 4.6, 8 is worth it. Finally, at AC 19: WC av 13.2, O goes up almost 1.83, 8 is worth it. Thus, it requires fewer orcs to justify the lost action for the WC as AC climbs. Naturally, as you noted, if the WC can get his bonus attack, it only requires 1/2 the # of orcs to justify. Hope this helps. Thanks again.

  3. I’m not sure I understand something – you write, “And, of course, the Eye of Gruumsh can’t benefit from ordering a foe of its own to kneel, because of the sequence of initiative.” I’m not sure this is correct… When “command:grovel” for instance, is used, the target follows the command using its own turn, then ends its turn – “The target falls prone and then ends its turn.” Assuming we are just looking at the Target and the Eye, it would be the Eye’s turn again before the Target gets its next turn to stand up, giving it advantage on its attack, or disadvantage to the prone target on an opportunity attack if the eye were to leave its reach.
    I don’t think this necessarily makes it worth it for the Eye to use Command in a 1v1 duel say, but it does have an effect.

    1. Ahh. You are correct with respect to the timing. However, “command:grovel” still doesn’t benefit the Eye of Gruumsh in any meaningful way, since it consumes one action that could have been used to Attack in order to provide advantage on the next Attack. Either way, the Eye is making two Attack rolls — but if the Eye Attacks on two consecutive turns and hits both times, it deals damage twice, whereas if it Attacks only once with advantage, it deals damage only once, even if both rolls would have been hits.

      1. Except the PC is still going to be prone if it and the Eye of Gruumsh are still alive when the Eye’s next turn comes around, and then it gets all its attacks with advantage before the PC can finally stand up again!

          1. So Command:Grovel would allow an immediately following Bonus Action Spiritual Weapon attack at Advantage, then the following round a normal Melee Attack at Advantage and another Bonus Action Spiritual Weapon attack at Advantage, right? Are 3 attacks at Advantage better than 4 normal attacks?

          2. At a 50 percent chance to hit, three attacks with advantage are slightly better than four without. At a two-thirds chance to hit, it’s an even match. Above two-thirds, four normal attacks are better. Below 50 percent, three with advantage are significantly better.

          3. The immediately following Spiritual Weapon attack is not made with advantage because a target successfully commanded to fall prone doesn’t do so until its own turn. So it’s actually 2 attacks with advantage and one without vs. 4 without.

  4. Question: What if we also take into account the Orcs from Volo’s Guide to Monsters? How would that shake things up?

    And what if the orcs are accompanied by… say… an Ettin, or a Hill Giant, or an Ogre, or some other ally?

  5. Pingback: Táticas Orc
  6. How do you define “stronger and tougher”? The Eye of Gruumsh has 45 hp and 16 AC compared to the plain Orc’s 15 hp and 13 AC.

  7. Have you considered that Augery has a narrative advantage, allowing the eye to beesech Gruumsh as to whether or not a particular engagement is a good idea or not, if the orcs know to expect the players or have some other objective they may cast Augery each day before a raid, and then go ahead or not depending on the result.
    i.e. orcs waiting to attack a village may wait until the PCs have left as their ‘reading of the bones’, etc. lets them know not to attack, while the players a present, this can give them an otherworldly ‘one step ahead’ of the players feel for tribes which include an eye of gruumsh.

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