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Orcus was one of the first rulers of the Abyss, and has proven one of the most popular demon lords over the years.
With eight different demon lords making their appearance in Out of the Abyss and the rest of the Rage of Demons storyline, a new generation of players has a chance to embrace the complex history of the Demon Prince of Undeath.
Demonkind first appeared in 1976 in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement for the original D&D box set. Seven demon types debuted in that book (which became well known for its provocative cover): the imaginatively named demons Type I to VI, as well as the succubus. Eldritch Wizardry also revealed that demons had lords, even as it introduced two of them: Demogorgon and his eternal foe Orcus.
Orcus appeared in that book in the same form he’s held to the present day, with a ram’s head, bat’s wings, and goat’s legs. He was also revealed as the prince of the undead—able to summon wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires—and the holder of the skull-tipped “wand of death.” This description was largely consistent with Orcus’s appearance in 1977’s Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, even as that book upgraded him to “one of the most powerful and strongest of all demons.”
Despite his early introduction, Orcus wasn’t the first demon lord to appear in an adventure. That was Lolth, the archvillain of the eponymous Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980).
However, Orcus would soon follow her lead.
THE BLOODSTONE YEARS
The Bloodstone Pass saga (which came to be set in the Forgotten Realms) consisted of four adventures released from 1985 to 1988: Bloodstone Pass, The Mines of Bloodstone, The Bloodstone Wars, and The Throne of Bloodstone. The main purpose of those adventure modules was to show off TSR’s new Battlesystem mass combat rules, but they also told an epic story with an epic villain: Orcus.
Fortunately for the characters, Orcus doesn’t actually appear in the first three Bloodstone Pass adventures. The presence of the demon lord is nonetheless clear as the heroes fight a priest of Orcus, raid a temple of Orcus, and work against a witch-king possessed by the Prince of the Undead. In the fourth and final adventure, the saga comes to a head after the player characters battle through a laundry list of lordly lairs to arrive at the 333rd layer of the Abyss—the Realm of the Undead and Orcus’s home.
The ultimate goal of The Throne of Bloodstone is to destroy Orcus’s wand. If the characters do so, the adventure claims that he won’t be able to rebuild it for a hundred years. However, the fallout of the Bloodstone Saga for Orcus was even more dire.
DEATH AND REBIRTH
Demonkind faced a major setback with the release of second edition AD&D in 1989. Demons and devils alike were kicked to the curb because TSR wanted to produce a game less likely to anger the mothers of its players. When demons finally found their way back to the Great Wheel with the release of the Monstrous Compendium: Outer Planes Appendix in 1991, they had been saddled with the unlikely new name of “tanar’ri” and were missing their abyssal lords.
It was the start of a really bad decade for Orcus.
The Prince of Undeath was still missing in action when Planescape emerged in 1994. Planes of Chaos, published that same year, also ignored Orcus—even as it detailed the 113th layer of the Abyss, call “Thanatos, the Belly of Death.” That supplement stated that the goddess Kiaransalee had recently taken Thanatos from “the former Abyssal lord of the undead,” whose name was no longer spoken. Despite the change in the plane’s numbered location, this seemed to be the home of Orcus, last seen in The Throne of Bloodstone.
Hellbound: The Blood War (1996) confirmed that Orcus had been slain or deposed by Kiaransalee. However, you can’t keep a demon lord down indefinitely. Orcus’s death was part of a metaplot for Planescape, featuring his secret return in The Great Modron March in 1997, before Dead Gods revealed the whole story that same year. After being slain by Kiaransalee, Orcus had been reborn as the undead god Tenebrous—and was now ready to take back his realm, his wand, and his power.
The third edition Manual of the Planes (2001) continued Orcus’s story, stating that “there are strong clues that Orcus is not quite as dead as many have thought.” From there, the reborn Orcus appeared throughout the third edition era. He was one of five demon lords detailed in the original Book of Vile Darkness, then reappeared in Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss. His alter ego of Tenebrous even got some attention, in Tome of Magic: Pact, Shadow, and Truename Magic in 2006.
Orcus’s most important appearance since his resurrection occurred in fourth edition D&D’s World Axis cosmology, where he was the archvillain of the so-called HPE adventure path (covering the heroic, paragon, and epic tiers) from 2008 to 2009. In a callback to the old Bloodstone Pass adventures, his appearance was heralded by a priest in Keep on the Shadowfell. A reminder of his presence came in Demon Queen’s Enclave, which featured his exarch. Orcus then appeared as the strong focus of three epic tier adventures detailing his plots against the goddess known as the Raven Queen. The adventure path culminated with Prince of Undeath, in which the adventurers must dive into the Abyss to fight Orcus directly—perhaps destroying the legendary Wand of Orcus and slaying the demon lord yet again.
Orcus returns for the first time in fifth edition D&D in the Rage of Demons storyline. There, his battle against his ancient enemy Demogorgon is on display—harking back to Eldritch Wizardry and the origin of both demon lords.
About the Author
Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early ’80s. He’s the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons, a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time.