Thunder cracks as great hoofed legs step out from the darkness. The weight of his massive form punishes the earth beneath you as you gaze upon a massive beast, an insult to life throughout the multiverse.
Before you stands a demon unlike any you’ve slain, a great prince of evil crowned with horns blacker than death itself.
Tattered, almost skeletal, bat wings unfurl from behind his enormous crimson body; wings that defy gravity as they lift this mass of muscles into the air.
Where courage and might once coursed through your heart, nothing but the icy chill of fear remains as you gaze into the white-hot orbs where this creature’s eyes should be.
Tearing your view from his wretched face, you see the final proof you need.
A mace capped with a monstrous skull tells you all you need to know. This is him. Orcus, the Prince of Undeath, Master of Vampires, The Shadow That Was.
Who Is Orcus?
Orcus has been many things throughout the history of the Forgotten Realms. In the current time that most published adventures take place, he is a Demon Lord with the title “Prince of Undeath.” At other times he has been a god, a balor, a mortal spellcaster, and even dead, erased from existence entirely.
Most powerful beings tend to have a goal that’s more than just some lofty idea of good or evil. Orcus is no different.
Eternally annoyed by life and existence, Orcus wishes to destroy all life in the multiverse. Much like Dr. Seuss’s the Grinch, Orcus is perturbed by people. If there’s one thing he hates, it’s all the noise.
Unlife, or undeath, doesn’t bother him so much though. A bunch of undead creatures surrounding him and doing his bidding is just fine by him.
One of the things I love about D&D and the fantasy novels that inspire it, is that gods live and die. They don’t quite do so in the same ways as mortals do, though.
In the case of Orcus, his death only gave him more of a claim to the title he eventually won back.
We get into his history below, but before we do that, let’s talk about his title.
While not quite a god, Orcus holds an incredible amount of power. This being commands the worship of so many cultists and powerful beings throughout the multiverse that there certainly must be a reason.
Well, of course there is. Orcus is a demon lord, which is where the title Prince of Undeath comes from.
The title of demon lord is reserved for a select few extremely powerful archdemons that command enough power to establish themselves as a ruler of some domain.
Specifically, these archdemons rule over one or more layers of the abyss.
Orcus rules over the 113th layer of the abyss, a subplane of existence known as Thanatos (named after the Greek god of death), the 113th layer.
This layer is, unsurprisingly, full of undead. It even has the river of Styx running through it, making it quite the common destination.
Orcus Stats 5e
Now, Orcus is a complex character with lair actions, legendary actions, and a magical wand that has more abilities than a level 3 character.
So we won’t be going through his entire official stat block. Instead, we’ll be focusing on what makes him such a formidable foe.
If you want to get the official 5e stat block, you can find it in DNDBeyond’s marketplace by following the link and scrolling down to Monsters, where you can purchase our Demon Lord buddy for less than $5.
Or, you can take what we talk about here and put together your own homebrew-esque option.
Orcus Stat Block (Abridged)
Huge Fiend (Demon), Chaotic Evil
STR 27 DEX 14 CON 25
INT 20 WIS 20 CHA 25
Hit Points: 30d12 + 210
Multiattack: Two wand attacks.
Wand of Orcus: Melee weapon attack +19 to hit, reach 10 feet. Hit: 3d8 + 8 bludgeoning damage + 2d12 necrotic damage.
Tail: Melee weapon attack +17 to hit, reach 10 feet. Hit: 3d8 + 8 bludgeoning damage + 4d8 poison damage.
Orcus can make three legendary actions. He can only use one at a time at the end of another creature’s turn, regaining spent uses at the start of his turn.
Tail: One tail attack.
A Taste of Undeath: 17th-level Chill Touch.
Creeping Death (costs 2 actions): Creates a twisting vortex (10 foot radius, 60 feet high) of black energy that gives creatures inside of the area vulnerability to necrotic damage.
Your players likely won’t have the misfortune of facing such a terrifying foe, but if they do, it will definitely be a terribly difficult battle.
This is a near godly creature that makes some brutal attacks that could kill a character in a single turn. Of course, with the amount of hit points at his disposal, he can go quite a few rounds without having to worry.
Legendary actions are one of those things that make powerful creatures even more deadly. Since action economy rules combat in 5e, they give this ridiculous creature the chance to feel like several more wrapped into one.
If that weren’t enough, he’ll almost never be alone. This is a near-god that commands legions of undead.
The types of undead or even lesser demons you choose will depend on your characters’ levels (and how badly they messed up to get to this fight).
No matter what though, this fight should require some incredible planning and tactics on your players’ part.
The lair actions described in Out of the Abyss are some good options but not the most exciting.
He kills a creature at “random,” summons some undead, and creates a set of skeletal arms that restrain a creature. All things being equal, that doesn’t really inspire the fear that a demon lord should.
I love the focus on undead, though. If I were to create more exciting lair actions, I’d put some emphasis on his complete control over the undead.
Perhaps every other turn he reanimates one or a few of his soldiers. This sort of thing gives you the impression of a demon that is in absolute control of undeath.
Another excellent option is to have him summon up the Orcusword, his other signature weapon, if he starts to get concerned.
Orcus is the kind of smug being that would think little of a few adventurers, so having an actual game-changer conveys a very specific message. It tells your players that up until this point, he was just toying with them.
At this point, the orcusword should be even more powerful than the wand of orcus for combat, although it should limit his ability to cast spells.
In 3e, the orcusword was an unholy weapon, meaning it dealt extra damage to good aligned creatures. It also had a burst effect that would deal more damage in special conditions.
Flavoring this as a form of necrotic greatsword with the ability to reduce hit point maximums would definitely present an added threat.
Perhaps if this weapon reduces a creature to 0 hit points, they are immediately raised as an undead soldier for some added psychological warfare.
All things considered, Orcus is terrifying as is. Even if he’s never more than a looming presence, your players should still be living in fear of this encounter.
The History of Orcus
Like most deities, or near deities, Orcus hasn’t always had the power he now holds. It’s likely that at some point he was nothing more than a mortal spellcaster – if a chaotic evil one.
You see, when chaotic evil mortals die, they go to the abyss and start their new careers as demons. Such a fate is… abysmal at best.
While there are many types of demons, they all follow a similar line of progression. Almost like Pokémon, when a demon achieves a certain goal, or amasses a certain amount of power, they attain a new rank.
So Orcus started out where any mortal would – as a larva. From there he rose up the ranks from larva to mane, mane to dretch, dretch to rutterkin, rutterkin to vrock, vrock to glabrezu, glabrezu to nalfeshnee, and eventually to his penultimate form as a balor.
I know that looks like gibberish, but I kept that progression in this article for a reason: becoming a demon lord is no small feat.
Still, with an iron will and a hatred for life, anything is possible. I bet Orcus has some decorative text above his throne that reads, “Don’t give up on your dreams.”
That brings us to his throne. As a balor, Orcus conquered Thanatos and took on the title of Prince of the Undead. From a lowly larva to defeating many other demons for this highly coveted title, our man has come a long way.
Such power wasn’t enough. Orcus wanted the command and strength that came with the title Prince of Demons, a title owned and crafted by Demogorgon.
Demogorgon is, in case you didn’t know, an incredibly powerful demon. Orcus wasn’t the only one vying for this title as Graz’zt, Prince of Pleasure, also sought to dethrone Demogorgon.
This feud is the stuff of legends and adventures. In fact, it’s the feud that we get to see played out in part during the events of Out of the Abyss.
The Demogorgon is far more powerful than either of its competitors though. Try as they might, no demon lord has taken his title.
The same can’t be said for Orcus, however. While the throne of Thanatos isn’t highly contested, Orcus made a name for himself as most demons do – by wronging others.
One such victim of Orcus’s wrath was Kiaransalee, a drow demigoddess.
The goddess of revenge did what she does best and exacted her vengeance upon the demon lord. She slayed him, taking his place and hiding his wand (which we’ll get to in a bit) away in Pandemonium, another layer of the abyss.
Death, as you may know, is not the end, especially for a lord of undeath.
Because the demon still had millions of followers and worshippers throughout the land and because his wand was still out there, his spirit could not be extinguished.
Orcus returned as an undead form of himself, a figure wreathed in inky black shadows, for he was a shadow of what he once was.
The Wand of Orcus
Almost as evil as the demon lord himself, Orcus’s wand is the stuff of legends. This magical mace is made of bones as hard as iron and adorned with the skull of an ancient hero.
It is a sentient weapon with one purpose: to extinguish all life in the multiverse.
As Orcus’s signature weapon, this wand holds a great deal of his power inside of it, almost like a horcrux from Harry Potter.
The weapon itself counts as a +3 magical mace that can cast several necromancy spells, give its user a boost to AC, summon undead, and does many more incredible things.
Like most artifacts, the rules for destroying this object are quite specific. You must free the spirit of the ancient hero whose skull forms the head of the mace, restore them to life, and have them take it to the Plane of Positive Energy.
Alternatively, you could just embrace the wishes of the wand and start destroying life as it crops up in your path. Honestly, both are great options.
The reformed being named himself Tenebrous to acknowledge his new form and to keep himself hidden in the shadows as he recollected his power.
The now weakened demon lord still held incredible power, but he had a long road ahead of him to reclaim his throne.
In his travels, he restored some of his greatest followers to unlife, killed a few gods, reclaimed his wand, and eventually overtook Kiaransalee.
Doing such a thing was no easy task, but the undead demon was fueled by his thirst for vengeance.
Tenebrous managed to do all of this by uncovering a secret dark magic known as The Final Word, a powerful piece of magic not unlike Powerword: Kill but with the power to destroy even gods.
One such god he killed in the process was Primus, the ruler of Mechanus. When he did this, he briefly took on the role of Primus and sent the modron armies on an early march to uncover his wand.
Finally back on his throne, Orcus retook his name and his title, now without the status of a god. The demon lord was once again the Prince of Undeath, vying against Graz’zt and Demogorgon to become the Prince of Demons.
Bringing Orcus Into a Game
Orcus is one of those characters that has a tendency to make appearances at tables even if the campaign never goes near the abyss.
With thousands, if not millions, of cultists in the forgotten realms and beyond, it’s pretty easy to hear this demon lord’s name uttered just about anywhere.
Cultists, as far as their monster-manual entry is concerned, are pretty weak. These characters have a CR of 1/8th, meaning a party of level-one characters can immediately get tangled up in some form of cult-centered storyline.
Cults are probably one of the best ways to introduce our favorite undead quasi-deity. I mean, think about it. A cult that worships a god of undeath has a lot of options when it comes to plot.
They can be summoning undead, trying to achieve lichdom, attempting to summon Orcus himself, or so many other things.
More than a demon lord or a quasi-deity, Orcus is a plot device. If you want to do something with skeletons and zombies, liches and vampires, or any undead horrors you can think of, you can use Orcus to create a story.
As your characters reach higher and higher levels, these stories will naturally get more intense, having a larger impact on the world and dealing with more terrifying creatures.
Essentially, there are no undead that are off-limits when it comes to who or what could be at the service of Orcus. Even Vecna was granted lichdom by Orcus, so clearly this demon lord knows no bounds.
You see, while Orcus is incredibly powerful, he’s not much of a fighter for a few reasons.
First off, sitting on his throne has quite literally made him fat. Having control over legions of undead pretty much means not having to do anything.
Secondly, whenever he can, the Blood Lord avoids living beings with a passion.
For a demon lord whose name can be found in most corners of D&D lore, Orcus makes a physical appearance in painfully few adventures, both 5e and earlier. Instead, Orcus sends his followers and legions to do his dirty work.
Orcus tends to be a figure pulling the strings from his seat in Thanatos.
Granting small amounts of his dark power to those bent on spreading death and undeath is how the demon tends to show up in most adventures or campaigns.
We’ve already covered that Orcus has been a god at times and a powerful demon prince at others.
While being a deity is typically the only way to grant spells to your followers in D&D, Orcus subverts this by sharing a portion of his power to those who make a strong case.
Naturally, this ends up giving him power as he draws his own strength from his worshippers.
Now, there are plenty of gods and powerful beings whose portfolio stretches into the domain of death. Orcus certainly isn’t the only one creating skull lords and death knights, and liches and vampires.
Vecna, for example, is often worshipped as a lich-deity. But you might remember who granted Vecna lichdom in the first place.
I guess that means Orcus still holds a bit of responsibility for any Vecnian liches roaming the multiverse.
Being gifted with Orcus’s power doesn’t always mean becoming a lich though. There are plenty of types of undead existing out there, and Orcus maintains the ability to create just about any of them.
A follower could petition to become a vampire or to be resurrected as a death knight. It really is up to your imagination.
When creating an adventure that’s going to involve Orcus, you want to think about what kind of followers you’re going to create for him.
- A coven of vampires might kill in his name to receive more power, giving rise to some CR 15 Vampire Spellcasters thrown into the mix. Perhaps the matriarch of the coven was originally a necromancer that wasn’t satisfied with lichdom as a route to immortality.
- A group of low-level cultists could be raising undead as tribute. They also might have a leader who is fixed on attaining some great power. Their goals don’t even have to be focused on undeath. A political leader focused on eliminating his competition might be secretly leading a cult of Orcus as a way of fear mongering his citizens.
- A mad scientist bent on restoring fossils to life could accidentally stumble upon some necromancy scrolls. Their work could catch the eye of Orcus, and with the demon lord’s favor on their side, they manage to create undead historic monsters. I call this one: JuraZic Park.
Legions of Orcus
Cultists and followers aren’t the only way to bring Orcus to life at your table. After all, the god does rule over an entire plane of existence.
The legions of Thanatos are his to command, and higher-level adventurers might find themselves in the middle of some form of war.
The 5e adventure Out of the Abyss is one place where we get to see this come to fruition in a huge way. I’ll try to avoid major story elements going forward, but if you’re playing in this campaign, you might want to skip to a later section.
After an amazing campaign full of everything from flumphs to driders, the adventures can summon demon lords up and out of the abyss.
The goal is to turn these demon lords against each other, and in most playthroughs that goal will probably be reached.
The fun part of this is that it’s not just a handful of incredibly powerful demons engaging in a fight club; it’s an all out war.
Each brings their armies, or a portion of them, and our heroes bear witness to an incredible amount of bloodshed on the way to their end goal.
What’s interesting about this is that, technically, Orcus should win on this principle. The legions of Orcus are infinite.
Quite literally, there is no end to the undead at service to the Prince of Undeath. Not to mention every enemy they slay becomes a new member of their forces.
Outside of OOtA, you can still have massive battles between armies. The Prince of Demons feud makes a great starting place, but you need some reason for your adventures to have a stake in the battle.
A great fallback hook is something along the lines of stopping the demons from destroying the multiverse in the process of fighting each other.
Maybe their battle caused the River Styx to run dry? Or maybe on a smaller scale, they might just be having their war on the material plane for convenience’s sake.
No matter how you choose to incorporate Orcus into your next game, your players are definitely in for a treat. If you are a player reading this, well, things are probably about to get exciting.
As always, happy adventuring.