North of the Moonsea lies the Great Gray Land of Thar -- a broad moorland stretching a hundred miles from the shores of the cold blue lake to the snowcapped peaks of the Galenas Mountains. This windswept upland is good for little more than grazing scrawny goats and sheep, and breeding hard, cruel warriors with a taste for plunder. Dozens of tribes of orcs, ogres, goblinkind, and other such savage warriors live in this wild and desolate land. Most are quite small -- thirty or forty orcs claim an old ruin as their "keep," or perhaps a dozen ogres lair in a cave they found amid one of the rocky outcroppings that dot the moorland. But some of the tribes are quite large and can muster hundreds of ferocious warriors.
Thar's humanoid tribes spend much of their time (and blood) battling each other, but they also pose a threat to nearby settlements. Melvaunt and Thentia are much too large to attack directly, but bands of raiders sometimes prey on caravans bound to or from Glister or winding along the coastal track. Others occasionally plunder the smaller villages and homesteads in the upper reaches of the Stojanow Vale, or lonely mining camps in the Galenas foothills.
The evil tribes would likely cause even more damage, but several factors keep them in check. First, various merchants and lords of the nearby cities strike deals with one tribe or another to let their goods pass in peace. Such bargains are often short-lived and uncertain, but a few are usually in force at any given time. Second, small bands of rangers and scouts patrol the borders of Thar, hunting down orc or ogre marauders, while the barbarians of the Ride viciously slaughter any such creatures they find out on the open steppe. Finally, any tribe that succeeds in some bloody or spectacular feat of plunder often earns deadly retribution -- the human cities nearby hire adventuring companies armed with powerful magic or simply bribe rival chieftains to punish a tribe that goes too far.
The Burning Daggers
Fanatical worshipers of Kossuth, the elemental god of fire, the Burning Daggers are murderous, intolerant zealots even by orcish standards. The apex of their existence is the opportunity to build a mighty bonfire and hurl their captives to fiery death one by one. Each Burning Dagger orc is branded horribly in the center of his face with a dagger-shaped mark (point to the chin, crossguard above the eyes, pommel in the center of the forehead) as a sign of devotion... once every year, the new mark seared right over the old. The cumulative effect for an old chieftain is absolutely gruesome.
The Burning Daggers make their lair in a deep set of caverns about twenty miles from Glister. A natural rift to the Elemental Plane of Fire exists at the bottom of the cave, creating volcanic conditions in a place where none should exist. In the heart of the rift, a dagger of hot black iron floats in the air, wrapped in ebon flames. Sacred to Kossuth's holy assassins, the dagger has been sought by the Black Flame zealots for many decades.
A crude palisade surrounding a dozen huge lodges made of fieldstone and turf, Fangjaws Hold is named for its barbaric gate, where hundreds of bulette teeth have been driven into the wood to give it the appearance of, well, a fanged jaw. This is the lair of the Skullsmashers, a tribe of unusually fierce and strong ogres. The Skullsmashers have captured many slaves from weaker tribes around them and their raids against neighboring lands, and so Fangjaws is home to a hundred or more goblin "thralls" who fight for their ogre masters, and scores of human and dwarf wretches who are simply worked and bullied to death in the most callous and careless manner imaginable. Few Skullsmasher captives last more than a few months.
The chief of the Skullsmashers is a hulking, two-headed ogre named Zar-Umak. Whether he has ettin blood in him, or is simply some freak of nature, none can say.
The Red Claws
A large tribe of goblins and hobgoblins, the Red Claws lair in the cyclopean ruins of an old ogre hold from the days when Thar was a kingdom. Cunning half-floors and quarter-steps of fieldstone and timber divide the huge ogre doorways and towering ogre vaults into spaces more suitable for goblins. The Red Claws are allied with a powerful pack of worgs, and Red Claw worg-riders range all over Thar (and the lands about) in search of easy plunder.
The Red Claws are currently the tribe of Thar causing the most trouble to the most people. The Red Castle stands about twenty miles north of the coastal track between Phlan and Melvaunt, and marauding worg-riders have made travel along this path dangerous even for large and well-armed groups. The hobgoblin marshal Hashrad is warlord of the tribe, and he has been gleefully extorting tolls, bribes, and tribute from anyone within reach. As you might expect, Hashrad is not particularly scrupulous about staying bribed, and so he frequently "loses control" over raiding parties or "doesn't receive" tribute offerings -- both timeworn excuses to take a bribe, and then plunder passers-by anyway.
This grim keep in northwestern Thar is home to the Bloody Skull orc tribe. In the keep's great hall, hundreds of red-dyed skulls are affixed to the walls, each a trophy of the tribe. Most are human, dwarf, or orc skulls, but ogre, giant, and wyvern skulls are also in prominent places. The Bloody Skulls carelessly mix the skulls of their own fallen champions with the skulls of noteworthy enemies those champions slew.
It's not glorious, but it's work. The player characters find that there's always a demand for sellswords in Melvaunt, since caravans bound to and from Glister require heavy escort. Food staples, wine and beer, clothing, mining tools, and other supplies are shipped to Glister, in exchange for gold, silver, furs, and timber cut from the nearby mountains. The journey takes about ten days in good weather. Each guard typically earns about 5 to 20 gold pieces for a one-way trip (experienced characters may make a lot more), and the caravan outfitter normally provides mounts, meals, and bedrolls -- but the player characters are hired by a dwarf merchant named Umthorn for ten times the going rate, because this caravan's cargo is "vitally important."
The caravan's cargo includes several large, locked chests that radiate magic. In the middle of the journey, a warband of orc berserkers and a manticore attacks the caravan. But in the aftermath of the fight the heroes learn that someone set them up: The orcs learned where to find the caravan, and the chests are empty. Umthorn is a black-hearted rogue who has secretly partnered with the orcs for months, but he's already stolen the loot for himself and plans to blame its loss on the orc raid he arranged. The trouble is, nobody told the heroes.
The Bloody Skulls are a numerous and aggressive tribe, but they have been embroiled in vicious infighting for many months now. They were known as the Black Spears only a few years ago, a tribe dominated by the clerics of Gruumsh; they took their name from the orc-god's fearsome weapon. When the old chief died, the Gruumshites moved to take over the tribe altogether and rule it in the name of He Who Watches. The orc warriors soon grew restive and resentful of the clerics' rule and rallied behind a young half-orc warchief named Wertha. Wertha overthrew the clerics of Gruumsh and captured Bloodskull Keep, but Gruumshite devotees remained in control of various outlying lairs and secret holds. Wertha has been engaged in reducing these strongholds one by one and making himself the master of the new Bloody Skull tribe. When he finishes, the Bloody Skulls -- formerly the Black Spears -- will reclaim their spot as one of the strongest tribes in Thar.
Most Moonsea natives have heard stories of the ancient ogre-kingdom of Thar and its surprising sophistication. Long-ruined watchtowers and roads of well-built stonework, powerful ogre-sized magic weapons, and black curses that still linger over ruined holds all suggest accomplishments beyond the capabilities of the notoriously dull-witted ogres. And in fact all these things were not the work of ordinary ogres. Ancient Thar was a kingdom of oni (or ogre mages), not common ogres. While most of the old realm's common folk were indeed ordinary ogres, oni lords and captains were responsible for building Thar's keeps and holds, laying its spells, and crafting its arms. Common ogres were little more than laborers and loyal (if dimwitted) troops whose activities were closely supervised by oni masters.
The player characters are hired by an agent representing the Double Moon Coster (a local merchant's guild) to track down a band of ogre marauders from the Stoneclub tribe. The Stoneclubs sacked a Double Moon caravan on the coastal track to Melvaunt and carried off goods and captives back to their lair in Thar. The heroes' job is simple: Save the captives, recover whatever Double Moon property can be saved, and teach the Stoneclubs a lesson they'll never forget. When the heroes track the Stoneclubs to their lair, they discover that the Stoneclubs have taken up residence in an old Thenturan watchtower, and a clever oni is leading the ogres with far more intelligence than the heroes might expect an ogre chieftain to demonstrate.
Most of the oni vanished into history a thousand years ago when Thar fell, but a few oni still linger in buried strongholds or the ruins of Thar's ancient fortresses. They call themselves the Kur-Tharsu, or "Overlords of Thar." The Kur-Tharsu are not really a tribe, per se -- they consist of a few score scattered individuals, none of whom would admit to owing allegiance to any others. But they still exert an influence over the lesser savages who roam their ancient homeland. For example, some of the oni still enslave common ogres and rule over ogre bands. Tribes such as the Jade Skull, the Falling Star, or the Crystal Sphere are bands of common ogres under the sway of one or more oni.
For the most part, the Kur-Tharsu oni have little desire to rebuild their old kingdom. While they are far more clever and ambitious than their minions, they simply are too few and too jealous of each other. Instead they use their ogre servants to bring them food, plunder nearby ruins and caravans or weaker tribes, and guard their lairs.