Orcs are a staple of fantasy. Yet their presence tends to be as little more than background fodder. Tolkien’s orcs serve as little more than “faceless” adversaries to be killed in large numbers. Adversaries similar to orcs appear throughout fiction—from Star Wars’ Storm Troopers to Doctor Who’s Daleks—enemies who have little in the way of individual personalities and are often almost literally faceless (hidden behind a mask or within some sort of casing). This lack of individuality allows them to die in large numbers without the audience feeling sympathy for them and allowing the protagonists to feel no guilt.
Yet while these faceless adversaries might allow for some impressive action sequences, ultimately they can get somewhat repetitive and just a little boring. It can make for a much more compelling story when the adversaries have a little more depth and exist as more than just corpses-to-be. As such, I approve when roleplaying games provide more in-depth background to their monsters.
Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes should have been an opportunity to do this for orcs in Pathfinder, and to be fair, it makes a couple tokens attempts to do so. However, on the whole, it misses out on the opportunity, instead focusing mostly on describing locations and adventure sites, many of which happen to have orcs in them. It does little to give the orcs any real character beyond violent killers or to differentiate one orc tribe from another. By the end of the book, orcs remain pretty much as faceless as they’ve always been, just fodder waiting for for the PCs to kill them.
Of course, to a certain extent, that’s the point. Orcs are meant to be adversaries for the PCs to kill. I just would have preferred to see a bit more colour and flavour added to them—a way to make encounters with orcs a little more interesting and not the same thing over and over.
Like most Pathfinder Campaign Setting books, a significant portion of the book is dedicated to a gazetteer of the realm the book is focused on. In this case, the gazetteer forms the first chapter of the book. It provides a brief history of Belkzen and then looks at each of the main regions of Belkzen, describing in alphabetical order locations marked on the map on the inside front cover. These regions include areas like the Blood Plains, Smokespur, and the city of Urgir.
The second chapter is on adventuring in Belkzen and contains details on orc gods, the various orc tribes, and orc war machines. The most extensive part of this chapter, however, is dedicated to describing adventure sites.
The final chapter is a bestiary of monsters and animals that PCs might encounter in Belkzen.
Without a doubt, the most interesting and, I feel, useful part of the book is the opening of the second chapter. Eight orc gods receive half-page write-ups in the same style used for the core gods in The Inner Sea World Guide. Not surprisingly, most of these gods have combat and/or violence as part of their focus, but I like that there is a differentiation made between different kinds of combat and violence. Lanishra views combat as a means towards enslaving his enemies, whereas Nulgreth glories in mindless violence. His followers disembowel their enemies’ corpses and bathe in their blood. The gods are one of the few ways in which the book differentiates between different groups of orcs.
The section on orc tribes is, unfortunately, the most disappointing part of the book. This section really should have received a much greater page count, allowing each tribe to stand out from the others. As it is, twenty-four orc tribes are jammed into only six pages. This means each tribe gets from one to three paragraphs of description. As such, apart from a few names and superficial details, there’s little a GM can do to differentiate between an encounter with Drowning Sand orcs and one with Gutspear orcs. All encounters end up feeling virtually the same, and that has already been an issue with orcs for a long time. More detail on the tribes could have helped change that.
I have commented before that a lot of Campaing Setting books are rather lacking in societal details—the kinds of things that add flavour to PCs’ journeys through different lands. This stands out all the more with Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes because there’s so little else to extrapolate from. With human and demihuman lands, it’s possible to fill in the blanks with real-life knowledge and experiences. This is much harder with orcs because there is less real-world insight to draw on and so little in-game information to extrapolate from.
What is particularly frustrating is that, every now and then, there are hints of something more, but then no follow-through. The section on Urgir in the first chapter draws attention to the fact that orcs living in a city and conducting trade is a very non-orcish thing for orcs to do, yet no information is given on just how this has affected the day-to-day lives of the orcs that live there. We are told that other tribes look down on the Empty Hand tribe that lives there, but how do the Empty Hand tribe orcs themselves view the lifestyle that their chief Grask Uldeth has imposed on them? How have they adapted to their new lives? What exactly do the orcs of Urgir do?
One possible use for Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes is as a book of encounters. GMs might find it a useful companion to go along with the Giantslayer Adventure Path, which takes place in Belkzen and the first instalment of which heavily involves orcs. To be honest, though, I don’t really see it being overly useful in this regard either. Most of the adventure sites in the second chapter are rather generic. They cover haunted sites and ancient ruins. There’s no linking theme to them, and none of them stand out as particularly innovative or unusual. Giantslayer GMs won’t find much that really adds on to what the adventure path already gives them.
Belkzen is not a unified land and this can make it difficult to provide a unified sourcebook about the region. Orc tribes war with other orc tribes and with the giants that also inhabit the land. All kinds of creatures lurk under the ground or in ancient ruins. A human city tries to survive admist the orcs, and a secret dwarven city plans for the day when it can retake the sky fortress city of Koldukar (the original dwarven name for Urgir). I think one of the main issues with Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes is that it tries to cover all these things and ultimately fails in all of them. Even the orcs of the title don’t get the focus they need.
And so orcs remain faceless adversaries, the Storm Troopers of fantasy roleplaying games. It’s a shame because I really feel Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes could have been so much more. Instead, it ranks among the more disappointing Pathfinder books.