What Do I Know About Reviews? Return to the Glory (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)
I like orcs. I also like to challenge narratives. Not by completely denying previously established tropes, but by adding nuance and context to those tropes, and adding new aspects to what we have known before. In 5thedition I’ve played an orc wizard looking for ancient orc historical sites, an orc paladin of Baghtru, who was focused on protecting orcs rather than conquering, and an orc bard in an Eberron game.
In previous editions, I’ve been fascinated by the Forgotten Realms lore about the Orc Gate Wars, where the orcs were brought to Faerun by a portal created by the Imaskari in ancient times, and the implied orc world where the armies originated.
The narrative of orcs in Dungeons and Dragons really flared up on social media recently, with much of the discussion revolving around the intentional or unintentional messages sent by the implications of biological determinism, such as negative intelligence modifiers, and inborn alignment.
And that brings me to Return to the Glory, a recent adventure released digitally by Wizards of the Coast, with the proceeds going towards the Red Nose Day charity. This is an adventure that is specifically written with orc PCs in mind, assuming that orc player characters will be entering a dungeon complex that was once an orc city, reclaiming that city from the monsters that have come to inhabit the caverns.
Return to the Glory is a 38 page adventure, which, being a WOTC release, follows the same formatting of the standard Dungeons and Dragons 5thedition products. Maps are by Dyson Logos, and are clear black and white in format. Images used throughout are existing art pieces from various products, including orc images from the Monster Manual and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and other monster images gleaned from other WOTC official sources.
There is a single page primer, with the next 20+ pages detailing the dungeon complex, five pages of monster stats (usually monsters unique to the adventure, like NPCs, or monsters from sources outside of the Monster Manual), two full-page overview maps of the dungeon, and a final page of credits.
The adventure doesn’t spend much space before it dives into detailing the dungeon. The dungeon itself has various locations that tell the story of the old orc compound. The settlement was comprised of multiple tribes that worked together, ruled by a leader called the Overlox.
The compound isn’t just a huge war camp or an undeveloped set of caves. There are graveyards, parade grounds, aqueducts, divination chambers, a sacred lake, overgrown gardens, shrines, infirmaries, wolf pens, and a library. Several tribes are associated with specialized tasks keyed to various locations. For example, one tribe was responsible for the engineering, while another was responsible for training the settlement’s wolves.
The settlement is located in Turmish, but other than being located in the Orsraun Mountains, the adventure doesn’t interact with Turmish to any significant degree. The stronghold isn’t given a name, and the cataclysm that befell the stronghold isn’t detailed. This makes it easy to port all of this to another setting, but it also doesn’t use some of the pre-existing orc lore in the Forgotten Realms, which would have worked well with this scenario.
The player characters can learn about how the stronghold functioned, and some general details about events, somewhat detached from a larger timeline. In several places, the DM is encouraged to improvise individual events in which some of the ancient orc heroes participated. The only real clues about the fall of the stronghold come from some hints that the orcs of the stronghold pursued unwise ongoing wars with elves, and suffered due to their greed.
Several of the orc tribes are given specific omens and superstitions. Orc PCs are encouraged to be from the tribes that founded the stronghold, so that they know these omens and superstitions. In several places the observance of these traditions provide clues for some of the puzzles present in the dungeon.
The complex is large, and is expected to take player characters from an average party level of 6 to an average party level of 9 by the end of the adventure. While I’m not a big fan of sprawling dungeons, the fact that the various sections of the stronghold tell different stories about what that section of the stronghold did, and who dwelled there, means it’s not just dry dungeon crawling, but also an emerging narrative told by the environment, which I appreciate.
While some of the current inhabitants of the dungeon complex are going to be hostile, there are several encounters where player characters are not assumed to directly come in conflict with the other beings encountered. In several places, undead exist to instruct and guide, groups of settlers are willing to share their space, and the player characters aren’t assumed to be carving a bloody red swath through their ancestral home.
The player characters will encounter an undead champion that needs a task done, or will reawaken the magic present that helps with the infrastructure of the stronghold. What is likely the final encounter, knowledge of the player character’s goals will be important to adjudicate what they see.
As a final note, I love the detail about how orc skulls are prepared for the afterlife. It was a very nice touch that I had never thought about before.
Player Facing Material
There are several important points about running this adventure mentioned in the product. Player characters are instructed to pick one of the tribes that once inhabited the complex, so they know what omens and superstitions are known to them. The DM is also instructed to have the player characters determine what their hopes and goals are, related to reclaiming the stronghold, so that the final encounter can be customized. Finally, the importance of lines and veils is mentioned regarding using the hopes and dreams of the PCs for the final encounter.
First off, I’m thrilled to see lines and veils mentioned in an official Dungeons and Dragons product. I really want to see more formal discussion of safety and content warnings in Dungeons and Dragons products, since it is the most widely played and visible roleplaying game. I just wish the discussion of lines and veils had come at the beginning of the product, and spend a little more time elaborating on what those terms mean for someone that has not encountered safety discussions in RPGs previously.
The individual tribes have some nicely diverse interests, like rebirth, infrastructure and engineering, guardianship, song, purification of nature, healing, kinship with wolves, and recording history. Some pursuits are often downplayed when orcs are depicted. For example, the orcs of the stronghold taught their young to be literate, and kept libraries of books on the lower planes that were shielded from the youth.
I like the way the omens and superstitions are worked into puzzles in the city, but I wish there were more context to some of them. The stereotypical view of superstitions is that they are irrational observances made by cultures that don’t know any better, but that’s common to almost any culture, and with context, the observances usually made sense at some point in time, or are actually understood to be rituals without direct supernatural power. I would love to see a little more orc folklore to provide context for some of these observances.
There have been some great tools provided recently when it comes to story-based prompts with several of the subclasses in Unearthed Arcana, or with the Debts and Regrets or the Prophesies in Eberron Rising from the Last Warand Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount respectively. I would have liked a few aspirations/goals/wishes for the refounded stronghold, either for players that don’t have a strong idea in mind, or for players to work from when coming up with their own examples.
I know it’s beyond the scope of a relatively short adventure for charity, but I would have loved to have had specific orc backgrounds, possibly with some of the individual tribe flavors baked in, not unlike the guild backgrounds in Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. My biggest wish is way beyond the scope of this, or even more extensive products, but it’s always going to be hard to add nuance to orcs when their entire pantheon is evil.
By D&D alignment standards, they are all “villains.” Some of the orc gods need to be reframed beyond being evil, and new gods need to be added to the pantheon (of course, that’s also a pitfall of providing racial pantheons instead of setting based deities, but that’s a whole other discussion).
The dungeon does a good job of telling a story with the various elements, from NPCs to puzzles and other details within the complex. Not only does the adventure assume that orcs will be the protagonists, but the action assumed by the dungeon isn’t limited to hack and slash adventuring, but also involves puzzles, traps, and negotiating with potentially friendly NPCs. The tribal specialties introduced add nuance and depth to the orc culture being presented, and move things beyond the “warrior culture” stereotypes.
Howl of Agony
I don’t generally complain about the lack of deep lore connections in modern D&D products, but in this instance, tying orc culture to the Orc Gate Wars and the undetailed “orc world” could have added some gravitas to people that think this level of culture for orcs is a new development. I wish the omens and superstitions had just been called “observances,” and given a bit more historical context. There are some good ideas for orc PCs in keeping with the adventure, but a lot of the player-facing material has to be mined from the text on the dungeon complex. This was probably done for the sake of efficiency, but it’s not the most table friendly setup.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I was initially going to be a little less enthusiastic with a broad recommendation, but given the scope of the project, and the fact that this is for charity, I think this is a good pickup for just about anyone interested in Dungeons and Dragons, and for people that are interested to see potential emerging orc narratives.
I would love to see a little more connection to existing lore, not unlike the way the Ordening was used to reinforce the giant’s storyline in Storm King’s Thunder, and I would love to see a little bit more orc player character support (including better stats, but again, that’s for another day). I’m hoping with enough attention, we’ll get more content along these lines, pushing the boundaries of what we expect from player character narratives in Dungeons and Dragons.