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My players have just started Rise of Tiamat and are likely to encounter a Dragonsoul in their next session.

The Dragonsoul NPC in Rise of Tiamat has an Action called "Orb of Dragon's Breath" which gives them "Ranged Spell Attack: +7 to hit, range 90 ft., one target. Hit: 27 (6d8) damage of the type to which the dragonsoul has damage resistance."

The Dragonfang NPC in Hoard of the Dragon Queen has a similar Action.

Is this "orb" to be understood as simply an orb-shaped spell without a carried physical component?

Or is it rather a physical object that allows them to perform the Action, in the same way their "Shortsword" Action implies that they carry a physical shortsword which the PC's might loot?

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Orb of Dragon’s Breath is an action, not an item.

Orb suggests a shape like a ball or a sphere; see also the spell chromatic orb. (Thank you @Carcer). While D&D Beyond lists an item called Orb of Dragonkind, no similar entry is found for an Orb of Dragon’s Breath.

The action is specifically a ranged spell attack. It is the same, be it used by a Dragonsoul or a Dragonfang. Here are the actions for a Dragonfang.

Multiattack. The dragonfang attacks twice with its shortsword.

Shortsword. {snip}
Orb of Dragon’s Breath (2/Day). Ranged Spell Attack: +5 to hit, range 90 ft., one target. Hit: 22 (5d8) damage of the type to which the dragonfang has damage resistance.

Compare this to Hurl Flame, from the Horned Devil.

Hurl Flame. Ranged Spell Attack: +7 to hit, range 150 ft., one target. Hit: 14 (4d6) fire damage. If the target is a flammable object that isn't being worn or carried, it also catches fire.

A significant difference is that Hurl Flame is at will, while Orb of Dragon’s Breath is 2 per day (3 per day for Dragonsoul); another difference is that the orb's damage type is based on the kind of resistance to a damage type that the attacker has.
Otherwise, they are a ranged spell attack unique to that NPC / Monster.

Can it be an item?

Sure, if you want it to be. (As you noted in a comment, you are the DM). While I'd recommend against making it an item (for the sake of simplicity) if you think it would be cool for your players to recover these and use them then make it so.
At that point, as DM, consider what rarity of magic item they are (I'll guess uncommon) and whether they do or do not require attunement. (I'd suggest yes).

Most magic items that allow a user to cast spells will specify whether they do (e.g. Wand of Web) or do not (e.g. Wand of Magic Missiles) require attunement.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Another significant difference is that Hurl Flame is clearly a verb and spell action, while "Orb" is unclear as to whether it is the physical focus for a spell or just the spell action. That being said, Hurl Flame is a useful comparison and example for demonstrating your assertion. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jun 4 at 22:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt: given that it is an 'X per day ' ability, the likelihood of it being an item is remote. It is often helpful to read the whole description. You seem to have focused on one word. See also the "x per day" ability of a Djin or a Dao. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 4 at 22:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ That is a useful observation that could go in your answer; the only counter example I could think of was a Night Hag's Soul Bag. However, given that HoTDQ was released before such patterns were well-established, I don't think the stat block was necessarily informed by them. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jun 4 at 22:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was also making an apparently unfounded connection with the item Orb of Dragonkind. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jun 4 at 22:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is unfortunately named for that reason. In this case the ability should be understood to mean orb as in chromatic orb, not orb of dragonkind. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jun 4 at 23:08

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