He is a grossly fat demon lord, some 15 feet tall. His huge gray body is covered with goatish hair, and his head is goat-like although his horns are similar to those of a ram. His great legs are also goat-like, but his arms are human. Vast bat wings sprout from his back, and his long, snaky tail is tipped with a poisonous head.
Orcus: This is your life!
Other major demons have had their moment of fame. Lolth landed the cover of Monster Manual 3. Demogorgon showed up on Monster Manual 2. But this is Orcus, Prince of the Undead, who was featured on the Monster Manual itself; he is an important enough figure that 4th Edition D&D even went by the internal codename "Orcus" before its announcement. He deserves no less a representation than his gargantuan figure -- an impressive "mini" if that term possibly applies to a demon lord of his majesty.
If you don't know the history of Orcus -- and why he has made such an impression in the game that his mini simply had to come out -- you can read this review of his career in D&D.
Truth be told, Orcus might not be the single most powerful creature in the game. He's certainly contested the spotlight with the likes of Demogorgon, Graz'zt, and most recently the Raven Queen. That said, Orcus and his death-dealing wand go back to the earliest days of the game -- back to when its creators amalgamated various world myths, legends, and even religious demons into the game's collection of monsters.
That's where Orcus comes in.
We mentioned a bit of this in Demogorgon's retrospective. The history of Orcus's name alone is a quick but worthwhile read, with origins as an ancient underworld god who might have evolved into a Middle Ages wild man (a hair-covered brute armed with a club). They're next to each other in the Monster Manual for a reason; even the lowliest pig-tusked orc shares an etymological connection with this demon lord, as "Orcus" transitioned into the word for ogre as well as for orc (picked up by none other than Tolkien).
Entrance to the Game
The immense and unending enmity between Orcus and Demogorgon no doubt stems from their appearance as the game's first demon lords in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry. Years later, the two of them also make a joint appearance in the D&D Immortal Set, albeit in oddly nicknamed, altered forms. This "Immortal" Orcus (also known as "The Goat, Master of the Dead, Lord of Darkness, The Black Prince"), when willing to fight personally (a rare event), "…uses any convenient weapons, wielding one in each hand, and swings his deadly poisonous barbed tail as well."
Any convenient weapon? Not likely. True, "Immortal" Orcus still padded about on cloven, goatlike feet, and his ram horns were very much present. The thing to note here is the absence of his signature weapon: the Wand of Orcus.
The Wand of Orcus: 1st Edition
With the 1st Edition Monster Manual (as well as publication of the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth), Orcus had to share the stage with several other demon lords and princes: Juiblex, Graz'zt, Fraz-Urb-Iuu, Kostchtchie…. Nevertheless, his Monster Manual description stated that "…it is probable that this creature is one of the most powerful and strongest of all demons. If he so much as slaps with his open hand, the blow causes 1-4 hit points of damage."
Also present: his wand. Orcus's famed wand of death is a rod of obsidian (sometimes cold iron and obsidian set with rubies) topped by a skull. "This instrument causes death (or annihilation) to any creature, save those of like status (other princes or devils, saints, godlings, etc.) merely by touching their flesh." Listed as an artifact in the Dungeon Master's Guide, the wand could be chanced upon by players. After all, at times Orcus even allowed his wand to "…pass into the Prime Material Plane in order to wreak chaos and evil upon all living things there." However "…this sort of dalliance lasts only for a short time -- perhaps a year or two at the most -- before the bloated prince grows bored and reclaims his artifact, usually along with the soul of whoever currently wields it."
Later versions would add how the wand's skull was either of a human hero or else a god who once challenged Orcus to a duel; and that the wand itself functioned as a +6 unholy chaotic heavy mace (if brought down upon your head). More recently, it's listed as a +6 lifedrinker heavy mace -- and although the original artifact did not provide its full death-dealing power to users other than Orcus, this version does; if a hero somehow takes possession of his wand in E3 Prince of Undeath, its touch of death functions as designed.
(In its current inception, the wand is just as potent as it was in the past. As we put to the test, the Wand of Orcus could defeat Demogorgon -- in one fell blow!)
Lolth, we recently noted, served as the ultimate villain in Q1, the culmination of the epic adventure series that began at the Temple of Elemental Evil and ended in the Demonweb Pits. Orcus had his own adventures: 1st Edition's H-series (concerning the BattleSystem rules, for mass battles/minis play). These were, as might be guessed, high-level fare. H2: The Mines of Bloodstone included, among its many encounters, an arsenal guarded by a mimic door and three lurkers above dropping over any poor thief attempting to pick the lock; an arena stocked with a captured catoblepas, an old red dragon, and a beholder; eight "test" chambers, one of which contained a tarrasque; and finally, in case the party failed in their quest and he happens to appear, Orcus. And that's just H2. Out of H1-4. Oddly, although Orcus still wielded his wand in this adventure, he also carried a two-handed +4 defender sword. Just in case.
Prince of the Undead: 3rd Edition
Orcus's role as a demon lord has always been fixed: ruler of the undead. His very description reminds lesser beings of this influence: "Dead creatures respond to the presence of Orcus, even without his command. Skeletal arms claw up from the ground where he walks and grab at the feet of his foes. Spirits fill the air with a ghostly chorus of piteous moans, tugging at his foes and hindering their movement." Yet although he rules the undead, commanding a host of them as well as armies of demons, it's likewise said that he also "…despises undead. He has little but contempt for them and uses them without thought or consideration. Of course, Orcus despises the living as well."
Earlier versions specified Orcus's abilities to speak with the dead, animate dead, and of course summon undead (from skeletons and zombies -- a theme we've recently seen in the Chaos Scar -- to vampires). Even now, getting squashed by this demon prince isn't the end of the matter; with Orcus's master of undeath power, any creature slain by his wand rises as one his legion dread wraiths.
In 3rd Edition's Book of Vile Darkness, Orcus once even rose as an undead, having been slaughtered somewhere during the 2nd Edition Blood War (a topic we'll leave well alone for now), supposedly by a drow working for Lolth. He must have grown severely complacent, but these things do happen. Of course, you can’t keep a good demon down, and Orcus rose to power again, retaking his fortress-city on the abyssal plane of Thanatos.
A God Among Demons: 4th Edition
A power-hungry demon lord with a command of the undead, Orcus has risen -- almost -- to the level of deity. Lolth, Asmodeus, Tiamat, even the lich Vecna have ascended and boast their own religion. Orcus has been "…worshipped as a god more often than most of the other demon princes are. Although Demogorgon may actually be more powerful, Orcus may be closer to ascending to true godhood." Certainly, he does have his share of loyal followers, death cultists, and even dark temples, with Quah-Nomag the Skull King and Doresain the Ghoul King both mentioned foremost among his servitors.
Although Orcus's rivalries with Demogorgon and Graz'zt have moved to the background in recent years, a new opponent has emerged in his way: the Raven Queen. As the god of death and fate, she controls the spirits of the dead and their passage to the afterlife -- an authority that Orcus would rather claim for himself…
And now we come back to that mini of Orcus. If you've been running the E-series of adventures, you'll know it culminates in a showdown between the Raven Queen and Orcus -- with the players in the pivotal role to determine the final course of the battle. If the party makes it that far, you now have a suitably impressive mini to place on the table…you know, instead of propping your copy of the Monster Manual to stand in for Orcus.