Monday, February 25, 2019

THE ORKUS

Do Gods fear death?

No. Though perhaps they should. Gods tend to be wholly convinced that they are immortal, which is of course not at all the case. They are however exempt enough from direct confrontation with death of their kind that they view it as something that happens to others, something that is distant and unrelatable, something that is improbable. They don't worry about the end.

But they can decay, like anything else. And like humans they are terrified of that.

Especially those puritans and moralists, who work with great effort , and even those chauvinistic enough to fantasise about clean and polished civilisation, who want to play in their little neat sandbox, who spite everything that lacks their hallowed purity.

The Orkus is made of fear of imaginary things, and real things. All the great phantoms of the spheres are manifest through the ecstasies and terrors of the beings that live in them, and they perpetuate them in kind. The Orcus is no different. They fear rot, so the Orkus is rot. Clutching their pearls they invent rot, so the Orkus is even. more. rot.

Order collapses. Clean turns filthy. Beauty shrivels. Bodies to blubber. Faith crumbles. Manners are abandoned. Rules are forfeit. The Orkus is physical, mental, moral, social decay. It's as much the maggots in a corpse as it is people becoming complacent and slothful, forgetting and forgoing care.

It's stagnation, corruption, and bloat.

Its name stems from the idea of the Ur-Ghast, the primal progenitor of the undead that embody its emblematic decay, that express the notion of decay in their very being. But a name is a structure, a construct, and so it too must decay. At this point it is the Orkus. In a few centuries it will probably be something like the Orghs, and further down the line, it may just be the guttural grunt

Classical D&D depicts the Orkus as a sort of fat demon goat. This is ridiculous. The most accurate depiction or manifestation of the Orkus would be a vast lake of black, grimy, foul oil-like sludge, completely decayed, rotted, and putrified. Where does it live (if it can even be called alive)? In metaphysical space in the dark shadows of a decomposing body's eye sockets, in the dark corridor where the duke abandons his conscience and violates his maid, in the hollow windows of ruined houses filling penniless ghettos and derelict cities. They are the Orkus. The filth under your fingernails as you choose negligence instead of care, is the Orkus.

Art by Keith Thompson

Who worships the Orkus? No one. You don't worship decay. There's no reason why you would. However, you can lose yourself to the Orkus. As a person, but also as a community, or even as a civilisation. It starts with neglect. Of friends, of hygiene, of morals, of duty, of anything that needs care and maintains a structure. This devolves into a fundamental apathy and putrification of the self. At this point all that drives your actions is pure spite, towards everything that you've abandoned and neglected, because you hate that other people enjoy what you've let fall into the mud for yourself. You want to bring them down to your level, because you've lost all hope to pull yourself up again. You want them to be like you, because you can't stand them being better. So you become a festering bloat that heals nothing, and befouls everything. If ever there was, disagreements of morality and politics aside, a true degenerate, you are it.

What classic D&D got right, is that the Orkus is deeply tied to undeath. After all, an undead is tyically an avatar of decay, a rotted dark mirror-image of a wholesome human. The undead subservient to the Orkus are no clean skeletons or ghosts, they are zombies, ghouls, ghasts, rotting pulps of viscera and stench and maggots, or emaciated blemished diseased wretches. They are the face of human spoiling in body, in mind, and in soul. They are hard to look at. They are disgusting. They are a confrontation with every human's posthumous fate, with the inevitable tarnish and defacement that awaits.

Art by Jakub Rebelka
Sometimes the Orkus was used as a weapon. Artillery shells filled with its black bile-like sludge. Water wells poisoned. Some monster even turned the sludge into a gas at some point. The results, as you might expect, were hideous. And they took both sides too, for to use something like the Orkus to rot your foes into submission, decays the mind with the maggots of either guilt or sadism. They were all gripped by the Orkus. The aforementioned man that invented ORKGAZ killed himself in a moment of lucidity from his state of decay. By that point his house was all but consumed by wood and cement rot, the carrion of dead rats was oozing its juices through his ceiling, and he had eaten his cat, the bones strewn around the dead-stinking kitchen. Of course, his death didn't stop his decay. The house ate the pus-ridden flesh from his bones, or perhaps the other way around, and now he crawls, undead formless behemoth, through the wasteland. The Orkus wins. Everyone else loses.

Necromancers who draw their power from the Orkus are misanthropic, unhygienic, amoral shit sacks that if they're lucky still somewhat resemble people. They'll be infected with the Orkus over time. Teeth rotting, skin turning black and yellow and shriveled and gangrenous. Bloat. Necrosis. Their name will turn from Johan into Jhhng into hoarse hiss. They neither sleep nor eat, at first because they neglect doing it, then because they lose the organs to. They die somewhere along the way, but as long as they have tendons to pull their bones with they keep going.

Orkus necromancers cannot make anything. They can only decay things down, not build them back up. They can't improve anything with fleshcrafting, they can only amalgamate things together to rot as one big pile. They can't create order or structure. They can't give anything more functionality, only less. They can't heal in any possible way, not even themselves or their own undead. Learning a spell of the Orkus will gradually rot away the other normal spells in your brain, turn them into maggot-riddled festering versions of themselves. Fireball would turn into Exploding Corpse, Magic Missile into Magic Maggots, Light into Pallor. These rotting spells are never as powerful as the original, and if they deal damage, part of it is necrotic instead of what it's supposed to be. Over time they'll rot even further, more and more of their damage will turn necrotic, and you may lose some spells altogether as their carrion thoroughly putrefies and leaks out of your brain as a soup of metaphysical pus.

Art by Konstantin Kostadinov
Powerful items of the Orkus do not look magical or intricate or wonderous. They're disgusting. People will ask why the fuck you have something like that on you. And then they'll look at your face under your hood and scream. Some examples of Orkus items:
  • The ribcage of Vrghhrh, meat hanging on it, infected with at least four kinds of insects, kept in a bloodied sackcloth bag. When you set it over your head, no telepathy or mind-affecting effects can reach you through its miasma and its rotting aura disillusions you from any phantasm trickery, but its stench nauseates you and its resident insects come to partake in your flesh. Permanently lose a point of randomly either Charisma or Constitution, each round you wear it.
  • The remnants of an ORKGAZ artillery shell. A black greasy film of the Orkus still sticks to the rusted twisted metal. You can empower a necrotic effect with this to increase both its range and spread, holding it like a catalyst, but touching the shell rots your hands away. Using the shell permanently costs a point of Dexterity.
  • A ghoul's clawed arthritic hands, tied together with frayed rope. They are still twitching under their bonds. The blackened scabbed fingers ooze the infected pus that causes muscle spasms and contraction. Harvest a dose of paralytic poison per day.
  • A grimy tin can of spoiled meat, riddled with fly eggs. Remnant of some war that neither side, but instead the Orkus, won. Raised undead release a flesh-eating fly swarm when ruptured/killed.
  • A blood- and shit-stained brick of some old sewer. Its scraped, filthy stone embodies decades of neglect. If you awaken its ruin, by smashing some living thing dead with it, the blood will corrode it and make it brittle like an eggshell. It can then be broken to release the Orkus, quickly collapsing stonework, walls or other architecture. The size of this effect is proportional to the sacrifice.
  • A maid's rag soaked in blood that won't dry and has turned into a forever-wet dark stinking muck. The testament of violence and abuse, morals rotting until they burst at the seams with maggots and the Orkus consumed the house. When you wear it, those who deal damage to you are reimbursed with a Charisma drain that makes them brutish and obscene.
Then there's the wand. The wand should never have existed but some sick establishment decided to build it anyway. Luckily, it was never completed, because its assembly line rusted, its launch platform collapsed, and its factory became derelict before the missile could be finished. Its influence was that strong. WAND01, WAND standing for Wide Area Necrotic Detonation, was the necrotic equivalent of an atom bomb. A rot nuke. It was built with a core containing the coffin of SUBJECT, called that because his name had decomposed so thoroughly it ceased to exist. Allegedly he was some kind of holy warrior in ancient times, but he succumbed to the Orkus and became one of the most depraved legends of old. When he was killed, but obviously kept going, he was cast in a sealed coffin inside of which he has been putrefying, liquefying and coagulating, subsisting on himself, for centuries.

If the wand is ever finished, and detonated, it may spell the End.

As you've noticed by now the Orkus is more of an infestation than anything else. Its undead and necromancers generally form hives in derelict villages, cities, compounds, factories, sewers, and other ruins. And they'll try to spread, because that's what they do, turning meat to sludge and concrete to gravel and wood to pulp along the way. They bring disease, parasites, maggots and flies, miasma and infection. Any religion with a decent (god)head on its shoulders condemns and roots out the Orkus. The best weapons against it are light and fire. Light because it is a vector of structure. Life became flourishing and complex on earth because the sun was continually feeding it energy in the form of light. This is a powerful motion, and the opposite of the Orkus. Fire because it is very good at incinerating everything.

It should come as no surprise that purging and inquisition is a widespread response against the Orkus. And that is unfortunately an effective means. Maintenance and cleaning, however merciless, is the opposite of rot and filth. Remember, the Orkus was born from the fear of the Gods and the puritan gentry, and they are the embodiment of restrictive, overbearing, and punitive law. But, this is not the only antithesis to the Orkus. Care, nurture, heartfelt attention, is another. And it tends to not have the risk of everything only becoming worse if you forget to burn the bodies.

Photography by Atlas Obscura

8 comments:

  1. This is awesome! Gross, but great. I plan on borrowing some of the imagery, like the lake of sludge, for the orc-god of my homebrew setting. I hope that's ok. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  2. Fantastic write up. It really shows what you can do with even something we've seen a thousand time like Orcus. The bits about the WAND and the ORKGAZ reminded me a bit of Kirkbride, if you don't mind the comparison, and the God's worrying about decay reminded me of Bacchus by Eddie Campbell, which gave is the great line "Immortality ain't forever."

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  3. Thompson AND Rebelka? Bringing out the heavy hitters in the art department.

    Also this is terrifying and foul and disgusting and excellent.

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    1. I needed top shelf material for this one. No ammo spared. I'm glad you like it. And that it evokes the disgust that it needs to.

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  4. We appreciate the top tier disgust!

    Speaking of appreciation. Have you thought about getting your blog on the RPG/OSR/Indie blog planet? In light of G+ going into that light, it would be a good place to find people; I have found some good blogs there.

    https://campaignwiki.org/wiki/Planet/What_is_this%3f
    https://campaignwiki.org/wiki/Planet/Please_join!

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  5. You might want to make your font bigger... it's microscopic on desktop, and long texts are really painful to the eye.

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  6. Very cool, reminds me of ruinous powers.
    I do think that some of the items don´t quite have the mechanical indentity they should regarding Orkus nechromancesr not being able to improve things, and using Orkus stuff also affecting the user negatively
    I would try to avoid direct buffs, or try to pair the positive effects effects with negative effects to the user, something like this:


    • The ribcage of Vrghhrh,. Any undead raised has it´s flesh infested with insects which damage the undead (Reduces it´s HP) but Raised undead release a fly swarm when ruptured/killed.

    This removes th simple debuff, which I think clashes with the lore. takes the effect of the Tin can, and pairs it with a debuff that enables the good effect so they have good synergy.

    • The remnants of an ORKGAZ artillery shell. A black greasy film of the Orkus still sticks to the rusted twisted metal. Increases the range of all your necrotic damage but you also take half of that damage. This plays up the nature of how uncontrollable the orkus is and ties well with the idea of weapons of mass destruction being dangerous for everyone.

    A grimy tin can of spoiled meat, riddled with fly eggs. Remnant of some war that neither side, but instead the Orkus, won. Eating the meat removes all hunger, but reduces Con by 1 and the player gets disadvantage in all physical tests until they eat well for one week.


    It plays up the angle of spoiled food still being eaten by those who are desperate enough. The consequences are very bad, and only someone who is actually about to die of starvation would consider it. However the fact that eating well removes the debuff ties with the idea that care is antithetical to the Orkus.

    • A blood- and shit-stained brick of some old sewer. Its scraped, filthy stone embodies decades of neglect. Creating a hole in a construction and inserting the brick will cause the whole construction to take necrotic Damage over time.

    This allows to focus on the idea that the Orkus also affects inanimate matter and deals with the problem of the current effect being a straight buff. It is useful against fortifications and the DoT effect ties well with the idea that decay is insidious thing that happens over time.


    • A maid's rag soaked in blood that won't dry and has turned into a forever-wet dark stinking muck. The testament of violence and abuse, morals rotting until they burst at the seams with maggots and the Orkus consumed the house: The Wielder can spend one point of charisma to have advantage in all intimidation checks against characters who are socially inferior for one day.

    This focuses on the type of decay that created the item in the first place. The charisma reduction represents the wielder relying more and more on their position of authority to control others instead of on other social aspects.

    I think this makes having a scenario with them interweaved more interesting.

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