Orxit and its impact on the Borderlands

Resemblances to events on Earth or the famous TSR basic module are purely unintended coincidences from the random sentence generator.

On Darkmoon, twenty-third day of the month of Baghtru, Breaker of Bones, the Orcish tribes held their moot and voted to leave the Evil Union, throwing the Caves of Chaos into political and financial turmoil. As the humanoid factions erupt into tense political negotiations and tribal infighting, the long term consequences of Orxit, or ‘Orcish Exit’, for the orcs, the Caves of Chaos, and the wider Borderlands region remain unclear. We sent a team of bold adventurers to the Caves of Chaos to report on the situation.

The Union of Evil Humanoids, known for commonly as the Evil Union or EU, was born in the bloody aftermath of the War of a Thousand Spears, a conflict so devastating that even the traditionally bellicose and chaotic humanoid tribes agreed for the need for a unifying organisation that would so closely tie the various factions of the Caves together politically and economically as to ensure the survival and co-operation of all tribes in the future. Although represented by all the humanoid tribes (Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls and Bugbears), an important council of largely human Evil High Priests collect tribute into a common pool for all the tribes and set the agenda for the Union, issuing directives aimed at maintaining a common standard throughout the formerly warring clans. These directives, including regulations on weapons and armour manufacturing, allocation of slaves, distribution of loot and educational reforms encouraging proficiency in the Chaotic alignment tongue, have all improved the prosperity and security of the Caves of Chaos. But the orcs, a greatly diminished people but once the most powerful and far-ranging humanoid nation in terms of territory and slaves, have often chafed at the demands of what they see as a faceless bureaucracy of elites in service to a globalist pantheon of the Dark Gods of Suffering and Mayhem, including, crucially, the right of different humanoids to join different tribes and live and dwell throughout the caverns, including those traditionally held exclusively by orcs.

Namerok Pig-Sticker, Warchief of the Evil Eye

Namerok Pig-Sticker, Warchief of the Evil Eye

Namerok the Pig-Sticker, cocky chieftain of the Evil Eye tribe, had ruled the orcs through cruelty and intimidation for many years, and was no stranger to scapegoating the EU and blaming an influx of weaker humanoids into orcish territory to distract from his failings as a despot. Although not noted for his wisdom, Namerok was endowed with that low cunning and instinct for self-preservation endemic to the orcish ruling classes, and he knew that if the orcs had to fight alongside the other humanoids if they were to have any chance of maintaining their standing in the Borderlands. tired of repeating anti-HU grumblings from the elite warriors of his clan, promised his people a referendum on EU membership in order to head off a potential  rebellion from certain ambitious sub-chiefs. Namerok warned his people of the disaster that awaited them if their raids would not be supported by the bugbears and ogres, but his speeches fell on deaf ears as 52% of his warriors voted to leave the EU. But when the time came for him make the journey to the depths of the Evil Temple and deliver the verdict of his tribes to the priests, the previously arrogant chief instead announced his abdication of the skull throne, saying that he was going to retire from tribal leadership to spend more time with his favourite war-boar.

This decision has angered the Chaotic priesthood, who demand that the Black Rites of Secession be implemented by an orcish leader as soon as possible to avoid any confusion. The cabal, in unison with the other tribal chieftains, have made it clear that the orcs will be punished harshly for their insolence, so as to discourage other secession movements in the other clans. ‘It is of the utmost importance that the warlord of the orcs descends into the temple, takes the up the Jagged Shard of U’Zhul, and spills his blood over the purple-veined altar to Tharizdun to begin the long and torturous ritual of depature,’ said Yunkarr, Canon of the Crawling Chaos. During a passionate public address in the lower caves, flanked by his legion of undead servitors, the spokesperson of the EU lowered his death-mask for the first time in years to reveal his piercing, violet-tinged eyes, sunken into sallow skin, ‘The dark power that binds us in unity and prosperity does not brook shirkers or apostates. Our Unholy Union will grow ever stronger once the weak are purged from our ranks.’

The referendum itself exposed a deeply divided orcish society, with tendencies to vote leave or remain according to status, treasure type, age, alignment, hit die, and %In Lair. Dressed in fashionable scale armour and sipping artesanal goblin fungus brew from a gnome skull, the young orc warrior Ghorak the Iron Claw stands in for the typical cosmopolitan Remain voter. His long black hair is tied in a topknot and his arms ritually scarred with chaotic pictograms. As he speaks he fidgets with an arm-ring, gifted to him by the Hobgoblin chief after his term of service as a bodyguard in an inter-tribal exchange program, ‘This is shocking, I just can’t believe it. I speak Orcish, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Ogre, Common and Gnoll, and I’m learning Bugbear. I’ve stood side to side with gnoll archers and bugbear ambushers against our pink-skinned enemies and seen them flee before our combined might. We are stronger together. Some of my best friends are half-ogres or half-human. Some of them are even multi-classed. I feel more giant-class humanoid than orcish. It’s the older generation, stuck in the delusions of the orcish empire, that don’t understand the modern world’. Ghorak settled in the hobgoblin caverns and took a priestess of chaos for his mate. He worries that the increasing hostility between the orcs and the EU will leave him unwelcome in his adopted home and deny his half-orc son access to his heritage when he matures in 12 years.

The orcs are also split among inter-tribal lines, with the Vile Rune tribe, vassals of Namerok’s Evil Eye, overwhelming voting to remain in the EU. N’kholah, head shaman of the Vile Rune, has threatened to declare independence from the horde and is rumoured to be in negotiation with the chaos priests and other humanoid clans to secure their future in the EU. The warriors of the Vile Rune, noted for their raucous lifestyle, tartan kilts and claymore swords, are feared troops and an asset to the armies of the Caves of Chaos, but their efforts to become independent and remain in the EU have met with opposition from Yojar the Goblin King, who fears that his own vassal tribes would be inspired to break away from his rule.

Urgok the Beard-Burner is of the older generation, a retired blacksmith, bemoans what he sees as the excessive regulation of the EU cabal, ‘Used ter be nuffink wrong good old fashioned orky choppas. Made em the same way my grandad did when we conquered the humie hill tribes and looted the lizardmen. Now the EU says every axe got’s ter haf a hooky beard on t’end, and scimitar gotter haf da curve on’t just so. Nah we gots ter life with da gobbos and bugbears in our caves? In t’good old days, gobbo in an orc cave was a slave or snack. You knew where you stood! Nah dey warboys, miners, smiths? Dey work for half da gold bits and a bowl of pigswill, da sneaky gits’.

The racial animosity of Urgok and those like him found a voice in Nerghaal Tharaj, elite warrior and leader of the Orcish Independence sub-faction. Tharaj argued against the EU on the grounds of orcish supremacy despite his particularly vile visage betraying his own trollish ancestry. But despite the referendum result, all has not gone smoothly for this sub-chief. Once his side had won, a detect lie spell from an inquisitive shaman revealed that the Leave faction had no intention of honouring one of their main promises, that the 350,000 gold tribute that the orcs handed over to the chaos priests would be used instead to buy healing potions for orcish foot soldiers. Instead, those orcs on his side with the highest HD and armor class intended to pocket it for themselves. Likewise, the claim that they could eject humanoid migrants from the orc caves and still retain access to the minotaur and skeleton troops has been firmly dismissed by Murkhaal, Matriarch of the Bugbear Clans. Likewise, their claim that they would make greater alliances with more distant factions, such as the norkers and lizard men, have been met with caution and ambivalence. The reptilian humanoids prefer to deal with the greater treasure and access to magic that the EU possesses, and have not seen an orcish chieftain emerge with sufficient charisma to inspire their trust.

Tharaj, like Namerok, has chosen this moment of confusion to back down from authority and flee to the shadows, claiming no desire to sit on the Namerok’s throne of skulls. Likewise, the loudest and strongest sub-chiefs that backed Leave have slunk away. Chaos and bloodshed reign in the orcish caves as the sub-factions fight amongst themselves and lash out against the weaker humanoids in their ranks. Backstabbings occur with such frequency that the Grandfather of Assassins has had to issue a statement from his hidden fastness, clarifying that his organisation has had no involvement in the dispute. To date, no leader has emerged with the courage to descend into the Lower Temple and sacrifice his life to secure the secession of the orcs from their dark pact, nor have the Remainers a champion with the strength of will to restore order to the warring tribes and affirm their pledge to Chaos and the cause of humanoids everywhere.

Upon their return to the Keep, our adventurers report that there has never been a safer time for humans, elves and dwarves to raid the orc caverns and take advantage of their weakness, but warned future parties that their treasure is few, and that their warriors are worth less experience than the pre-orxit times.

 

Orctober part 4 – more orcs, more problems

So our last post was really about making standard AD&D orcs more dangerous in various thematic ways, This is fine for keeping the spotlight on orcs for higher level play instead of moving on to bugbears or whatever, but it’s really just adding spice to the meat and potatoes humanoid slay-fest. Since my homebrew AD&D campaign has long since passed the point where low HD humanoids can present a threat to the players, and since there are a few half-orc player characters on the roster (one of the main crew, plus a couple of henchmen and secondary characters), I’ve been cooking up scenarios where they can be involved in different ways.

orcto44

business as usual

Not that it means making orcs noble savage friends of the forest full of of facebook-style fake native american shaman wisdom. Orcs are defined by violence, danger, mystery, opposition and otherness. Take that away and you don’t have an orc or half-orc, you just have some tough guy. Just because your orcs aren’t evil-to-the-core demonspawn doesn’t mean that their story shouldn’t be about conflict. In the real world there are plenty of long running conflicts going on where people on each side of the ethnic/religious/national divide see the other as an evil to be exterminated. Developing humanoid antagonists like the orcs can help you explore this kind of story in your game, if that’s your bag. Since violence is to orcs what mining is for dwarves, magic for elves, pies for halfings, etc…I would say that orcs should never be far from real or implied violent conflict, but in a campaign world where it’s possible for orcs to have value to the cultures that the PCs come from, an adventure can encourage different ways of managing that conflict.

orcto43

So what kind of value would they have? Well, history is full of examples of a powerful civilisation exercising influence over a group which it considers less civilised, less cultured, more warlike, barbarous and violent. Sure there is conflict, but also trade and exploitation, especially incorporation into the military, perhaps as auxiliaries or irregulars. My model is ancient Rome and the Celtic and Germanic ‘barbarians’. Sure there was plenty of warfare between them but also trade, alliances, intermarriage, vassalage and the assimilation of barbarians into the Roman military, to the point where Rome relied very heavily on barbarian soldiers, and successful barbarian military leaders could hold the balance of power in the empire. In a D&D world, I can mainly see this kind of thing happening with orcs because of their similarity to humans in size, and the whole half-orc thing. Even in terms of religion, human followers of a norse-type mythos would see some things in common with orcs venerating Gruumsh’s family.

orcto48

With that in mind, here are a couple of orc-related shenanigans for your players to get stuck into:

  • PCs stumble into in orc lair and meet with a positive reaction from rather polite orc guards in shabby livery. They are invited to feast with the chief, who has served some time as a mercenary in human lands and was incredibly taken with human culture and now styles himself as a baron. He’s done his best to imitate it as best as he understands, but something’s always just a little off. The chief’s family and high-ranking warriors all dress in an approximation of courtly fashion,give themselves extravagant titles and use extensively formal and flowery vocabulary, peppered with glaring malapropisms. The chief fancies himself something of an intellectual and inaccurately quotes from human playwrights and philosophers. He also insists on reading out his own poetry. The savage and vicious state of rival humanoid tribes and races shall be bemoaned. He inquires as to the health and fortunes of local nobility, speaking of them as if they were distant cousins and requesting that the PCs deliver letters to them inviting them to his next grand ball. Despite this veneer of sophistication many of their manners at the feast remain typically orcish and there are certainly some around who go about this with some distaste and are itching to chop the PCs to bits just like the good old days. Nonetheless if the PCs can keep a straight face throughout the feast they can make an strong ally, particularly if they are or give the impression that they are of high social status. This tribe will eagerly buy silks, dinner sets, objets d’art and all sorts of wealth and status signifiers from the PCs. Particularly good relationships can be established if they compliment the chief on his erudition and taste, the warriors on their dashing charm and the ladies on their beauty and manners. There will be music and dancing, which will come off as a bizarre mix of human and orcish styles. The chief will make much of his sons and daughters and will try to play matchmaker between them and human PCs. For what it’s worth, they clean up pretty nice. If this notion is entertained, this tribe can become a source of hirelings and other aid. Things can get ugly quickly if the chief is mocked, disrespected or ridiculed. He can take advice in private but will not be made to look a fool in front of his subjects. Likewise if the PCs turn out to be boors or ruffians, or let slip that they are wanted by local authorities then the tribe will turn on them to take their loot and either kill them or turn them in to the law. If the PCs flash around wealth while appearing weak and of low social status, the temptation to simply attack and appropriate their cultural valuable treasure and equipment might be too much to resist.
rat a tooey

rat a tooey

  • In a world where the use of orcish mercenaries and bodyguards is an established tradition, a human-dominated empire maintains control over its dominions with an army which has become more orcish with every generation. Having proven themselves eager and effective soldiers, orcs integrate themselves to do some degree within the wider citizenship and gain various rights under the law of the land, immigrating and settling into human cities. The success of orcish military units in the provinces have led to some orcish commanders becoming popular public figures, influential in the borderlands and in the urban power centres. The troops are so loyal to their generals that civil elites are quick to placate these warlords, fearing a military coup. Among the military nobles, mixed marriages and half-orcs are common and fashionable. In fact, the success of orcs in the military has led to a widespread trend of ‘orcish chic’ in human society. Popular among rebellious youth or those with ties to the army, this entails speaking orcish slang, swearing by orcish gods, wearing orcish hairstyles and tribal markings, horned helmets, spiky armour, jagged blades and furs, even though these kind of clothes were abandoned by most city orcs over a generation ago while they tried to integrate themselves. Traditional human elders are appalled by this appropriation of barbarism, and likewise so is the elvish population, who are both nostalgic for the past when they were seen as the ones for humans to emulate and also worried about the general anti-elf tendencies of this new subculture. On the orcish side, most orcs are increasingly annoyed at seeing their neighbourhoods and bars invaded by privileged human hipsters who caricature their traditions, pretending they ‘get’ them. What started as a harmless fad veers into dangerous territory as a group of noble youths connected to an orc-cult disappear into the undercity to take part in ultimate ‘authentic’ orcish experience, an inter-tribal gladitorial competition  where a group of traditionally minded orcs and shamans intend to make sure the pretenders meet a gruesome end as sacrifices to Gruumsh. An underworld snitch tips off the PCs or their patron, and it’s up to them to find and rescue these young nobles while keeping the local orcish population sweet enough to not cause problems with the army.
Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

  • Based on the idea of Chaotic and Neutral orcs from OD&D, the Chaotic Dark Lord of the month is a powerful and charismatic fellow and has gathered the Chaotic orc tribes into a fearsome horde. The closest bastion of civilisation has recently recovered from an internal conflict and cannot stand up to an invasion on its own. The PCs are recruited as emissaries to the Neutral tribes. These tribes, being orcs, are all fierce rivals and reluctant to co-operate or see the others profit at their expense. In fact, they may push the PCs to eliminate other Neutral tribes to gain their allegiance. Otherwise they will demand treasure, weapons, magic items, hostages, territory in formerly human lands or marriage alliances with important humans.  The PCs may be asked to clear out dungeon/cavern areas in tribal territory, remove dangerous monsters or tame them for the war effort. Perhaps they must prove themselves through torturous tribal initiations or feats of strength. Maybe they will demand bloody sacrifices of powerful creatures to their tribal gods in order to ensure a good omen. The PCs will have to sit and moderate war councils with different human and orcish elders. Tribes whom with which negotiations go badly may join the Chaotic side, particularly if they suffer heavy losses at the hands of PCs. If the PCs manage to recruit most of the Neutral tribes, then they will it will be sufficient to halt the advance of Chaos, giving the party a chance to go on the offensive against the BBEG. Then there’s seeing if all those deals hold up come ‘peace’-time.
reaction roll

reaction roll

That’s a wrap for Orctober 2015. Please also check out parts 1, 2 and 3 and let me know what you think in the comments, feel free to comment your own ideas and get in touch if you’d like me to write more on our humanoid friends.

Orctober part 2 – half orc half biscuit

It became clear in time that undoubted Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.” (Myths Transformed, Morgoth’s Ring)

Liz's Danforth's MERP half-orc

Liz Danforth’s MERP half-orc, better than any of their example illustrations in AD&D

Yuck. From the beginning of the orcs in fiction, the half-orc came with them. Weirdly, men-orcs and orc-men are apparently different strains. Their origins in Middle-Earth somewhat occluded and mysterious, as is typical for orcish lore, but apparently some kind of sorcerous eugenics program. Interestingly, men first had to be corrupted to a certain level before being made to mate with orcs, it doesn’t seem like the orcs themselves had any inclination towards this before Morgoth ‘discovered’ the process.

LoTR and D&D core rulebooks both say almost nothing about female orcs’ side of things, but they differ in important respects. In our previous post, we look at the almost unique aspect of sexual threat attributed to orcs in the MM, markedly different from LoTR’s magic breeding program. It certain marks out the orcs as more sinister. Goblins and kobolds will kill you, but orcs are an existential threat to your race. They’ll assimilate and corrupt humanity, turning us into a badass multi-classable warrior race with infravision, higher STR and CON but a pathetic clerical level limit and no arcane magic. Sounds like there might be a few upsides? Damn right, half-orcs are awesome, and fun to play, even if the text itself appears to want to beat you up for wanting to play one sometimes, saddling you with harsh ability maximum in WIS (so cleric multis would usually be pretty weak), the only demi-human to have limited levels in thief and unlimited in assassin. Clearly there was some pressure to embrace your evil heritage and dedicate yourself to promoting the ‘antithesis of weal’ by being a Fighter/Assassin. There’s also the implication that all your tendencies to bad behaviour came from your orcish genes, and your good behaviour from your human parent.

Damnit, Gygax

Damnit, Gygax, I’m my own person, demi-human, humanoid, or whatever.

My first ever D&D character was a half-orc, and while I can fantasise about rolling up the perfect fighter/cleric/assassin and going maximum half-orc on the world, it was mainly because I wanted to be able to use miniatures from my Warhammer Fantasy Battle Orc and Goblin army.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

I didn’t know much about how the rules worked but made a fighter/thief so he could use ALL THE WEAPONS and CLIMB ALL THE WALLS! Half-orcs get really low starting age ranges and he ended up being 15 or 16 yrs old, just a little older than myself in real life. This was exciting, but adolescent me thought he seemed a little immature, so I made up a background for him where he was the adopted son of my half-elf druid (who was around 4o years old with 15 WIS so seemed plenty mature to me). My older self can ponder the interesting roleplaying possibilities given this kind of relationship between these two mixed race characters, one from each side of half-human possibility, but in the end it may be a good thing I didn’t invest too much in it, as Morglum the half-orc met an untimely death by way of dragon-fire when he was still in his teens, somewhere around the 5th level. Still, in his short life, I managed to squeeze some nice RP juice out of him, just by way of his age, race and choice of associates. A youngster raised in the druidic religion away from his original parents by a mixed race foster parent, Morglum was naive, good natured and believed in balance. The violence and sneakiness of his classes were part of nature, but he didn’t ‘get’ a lot of the racial conflict in D&D. Our early level adventuring took us through plenty of humanoid areas, and when about to meet orcs for the first times in his life, Morglum regretted that he had to end up killing a lot of them to safeguard his friends, and that so few of them were willing to listen to reason (he got burned early on by desperate humanoids trying to exploit his naivety). Still where orcs where concerned I had him negotiate and communicate whenever possible, including attempting to temporarily recruit defeated orcs (especially after our men-at-arms all died). A couple of times his ability to read and speak orcish turned up handy information, and he was would discourage unncessary slaughter of humanoids in favour of focusing on the main objective. This led to a fair few conflicts with the group’s main warrior, an elven ranger with exceptional strength, a damage bonus vs humanoids, and an itchy sword hand every time he had a chance to use it. Having a half-orc in the party definitely had a meaningful impact on gameplay, and although Morglum was never destined for name-level greatness, I’ve had a penchant for playing half-orcs ever since.

No prince charming, but he’ll get the job done.

Before Drizzt and playable drow, the half-orc would be my pick for the badass anti-hero kind of character, the self-reliant type who kicks-ass while working through his or her often literally teenage angst. Strong, tough, cunning, distrusted by communities or humans and orcs alike, it seems like they’re a perfect fit for the gritty adventuring life, which would provide them with the riches, comradeship, validation and power that they couldn’t get through normal channels. They mature quickly and have a short lifespan, no wonder the live-fast die-young dungeon raiding lifestyle would appeal. They’re the intersection between monster and man, the character that can lift the veil over the all-too-convenient tidy set up of good playable pretty races versus bad ugly monsters and mess things around. Plenty of  murderhobos of other races have, at some point in their career, realised that there might not be much to separate them in behaviour from the humanoids in the dungeon. The half-orc knows this right from the start.

While they share some bad-boy rebel appeal with the drow, half-orcs are less glamorous. Orcs have a much gritter, barbaric, even working-class vibe to them that’s at odds with the suave dark elves. Half-orcs even stir things up in the real world. Half-orcs (and their signature assassin class) were omitted from 2nd Edition AD&D in an effort to purge the game of controversial content. They were eventually restored in the Complete Book of Humanoids supplement, and regained their rightful place in the core race set in 3e. Sadly, the 3e half-orc was something like a hulk-like bruiser with an INT penalty as well as the CHA, similar in appearance to the WoW orc but a very poor choice in 3e character building system, especially since the lack of INT meant they had less skill points for thief or assassin- like roles. I always imagined them as more lean and wiry. Certainly stronger than your average human but not the juiced-up ‘roid monster a lot of newer half-orc character art puts forward.  In 4th and 5th editions, they are better choices, presented as natural beserkers, with their orcish blood acting as a kind of curse egging them on to violent rages. 5e fluff does take a more nuanced and realistic approach to human-orc relations along the lines of my suggestion in the last post.

5e half-orc paladin. Continues with the trend of making them much beefier and more inhuman looking, but I like 5e’s treatment of half-orcs in general.

I’ll stick with my AD&D style half-orc for my old school games, though some good race-as-class variants have been offered up for B/X in the OSR blogosphere, with some emphasising the sneaky side of the race and other pushing the more modern beserker take. How do people feel about the half-orc out there? Are there still those out there think it’s inappropriate? For you 5e players, how does the modern iteration fare in play?

Orctober part 1 – From OD&D to Advanced

Here’s my hand at an ‘Orctober’ series, as we spend the rest of the month up close and personal with the problematic humanoid everyone loves to hate.

orcflail

One at the back is all, like, ‘fucking hell Grishnakh, do you just have to be so dramatic all the time?’

Thanks to Mike Monaco for providing this excellent and amusing summary of generic fantasy orcs from UK wargame Hordes of the Things:

Although the dictionary definition of orc is merely “monster,” modern authors universally follow the lead of Tolkien in using the term as a synonym for a large goblin.  These have not had a fair press. They are fanatically brave in spite of being weaker and less practiced than most other humanoids, and must be kind to animals, since they train them so well.  It is interesting that Tolkien’s characters describe them in terms very similar to those used by medieval chroniclers to describe Mongols, who in our day are considered a nice friendly people of slightly eccentric lifestyle.  We might instead think of such goblins as a fantasy counterpart of the apocryphal northerner: clannish, rough spoken, given to imbibing of strong but peculiar liquor, keeping analogues of whippets and pidgeons, prone to mob violence at away fixtures and perhaps too easily influenced by radical politicians of other races. –Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker & Richard Bodley Scott, Hordes of the things

They’re Tolkienesque fantasty cliche, over-used and under-utilised, but I love orcs. The be-tusked nemesis of the fledgeling adventurer. The primitive, the bestial, the savage, the demonic. Even as a child reading The Lord of the Rings I always found them more fascinating than the elves and dwarves and hobbits. Maybe it was that bad-boy, underdog appeal. Maybe it was the fact that they were so undeveloped that made them so much more mysterious and compelling. I can’t have been the only one that wanted to know more about what was going on with Shagrat and Gorbag than Elrond and Galadriel, can I? In this series I’m going to try and get to grips with both the great appeal of orcs to me personally, their place in Dungeons and Dragons, and various ideas on how to expand their use in the game.

Ian Miller’s LoTR orcs

Us and Them

In D&D, one of the many divisions of the game is between humans and demi-humans on one hand, and humanoids (sometimes ‘goblinoids’ or ‘giant class’) on the other. Demi-humans included elves, dwarves, halfings and gnomes, generally any race that could be selected by player characters. Humanoids were orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, bugbears, and ogres. In D&D’s wargaming roots, these represented the different troop types available on each side (Light vs Darkness, Good vs Evil, Law vs Chaos and what have you). Although player characters may be of any alignment whatever their chosen race, the humanoids are unanimously bad guys, being Chaotic in Basic D&D and various flavours of Evil in AD&D. Being unplayable, unclassed and more tightly bound to antagonistic alignments, the orcs and related humanoids are the quintessential other – they walk, talk and resemble us, but but are in an exclusive and antagonistic group in opposition to ‘us’, the playable humans and demi-humans. On top of that, these humanoid antagonists tend to be low-tech, tribal, shamanistic cultures, which much made of their ugliness, aggression, lack of individuality, intelligence or sophistication, lack of art and culture, etc. It doesn’t take much thought to see the unfortunate implications of this presentation, particularly if one is familiar of colonial depictions of indigenous peoples. If we take the oft-made compsarison of D&D to the Old West, the orcs are the indians.  The orc is Grendel. In real-life warfare and imperialism, deliberate dehumanisation of the enemy in order to justify their killing or subjugation is a widespread and longstanding practice that continues to this day. The orc is the incarnation of this deception given life in the game world. The perfect enemy, the bane of civilisation that exists to be negated. This is all fine for some, and I get why. Monolithic evil cannon-fodder orc types allow the PCs to engage large groups of armed humanoid foes without becoming mass slaughterers of their own kind. The presentation of an exaggeratedly evil empire is easier to swallow if their forces are monstrous rather than human. I don’t fall into this camp personally though, and I think it can be rewarding to run humanoids in a way that explores, rather than ignores, their problematic implications.

Frazetta’s take. Bro, do you even squat?

 

A lot of what I’m going to say about orcs can also apply to the other races, but I’m going to focus on the orcs for a couple of reasons. One, they’re the iconic humanoid. Whenever you see D&D or analogous game referenced in movies and tv, for example, if a humanoid race is mentioned, it’s typically the orcs. In D&D inspired fantasy product including literature, videogames, tabletop wargames and suchlike, orcs often feature in one way or another, even though the treatment of them varies. Secondly, while Tolkien’s orcs are a race of corrupted elves, and this legacy persists to some small extent in D&D, I would say that in the game, orcs are actually the humanoid version of the standard human. When you square up the PC races against humanoids of roughly equivalent size and ability, you have kobolds as evil gnomes, goblins against dwarves, the Uruk-Hai-esque hobgoblin up against the elves, and the orc staring us humans right in the face. Orcs are human sized and have one hit die. They’re the ‘baseline’ humanoid from which the others deviate from. Most humanoid races and cultures are in their own way distortions of the human baseline, but orcs somehow stands on the same plane, the humanoid-equivalent in the mirror world of the savage humanoids.

warcraft_orcs_humans-400-400

face to squinty-eye face

 

Orcs and Humans

So let’s take a look and mankind-orc relations in early D&D. In the original version of the rules (the three little brown books, specifically Men & Magic) orcs are listed under both the Neutral and Chaotic alignment categories (interestingly, so are Ogres and Giants. Tough luck, goblins, hobgoblins and gnolls. You’re all still Chaotic only).

menmagaligntab

This gives them the same moral range as elves and dwarves, and plenty of leeway to make common cause with PC races. It also helps distinguish the Orcs from the mechanically similar goblins and hobgoblins. Although I have a hard time imagining a band of orcs hanging out with dryad and pixie friends. Alignment in OD&D was not so much an indicator of personality types as an allegiance to a particular side in a cosmic struggle of Law vs Chaos. Still, since the forces of Chaos boast the Evil High Priest and the undead, demons, etc, it’s a pretty clear equivalence of Law with Good and Chaos with Evil. Orcs in this game are far from nice guys, but capable of living in harmony with the rest of the world. The original rules didn’t forbid monster races as player characters, but these groupings were more used to see what kind of allies, henchmen and mounts an adventurer of a particular alignment could have. Thus, a neutral adventurer could ride a dragon and have a mixed entourage with an Elf and an Orc fighting side by side against goblins and ghouls. Or what have you. Wayne R’s fantastic blog explores this idea a little more. It is also of note that in their monster entry orcs are viciously antagonistic towards other tribes of their own species, but commonly associate with other creatures, including dragons, trolls, ogres as well as Fighters and Magic Users (I guess that these Fighters and Magic users are human, though it’s not explicit). They’re also into wagon trains. With regards to the orc-human relationship, note that men can be encountered as ‘monsters’, for example, as bandits or beserkers, and differ little from orc encounters in this regard, save for their classed leaders and lack of infravision. B/X D&D clarified the Law vs Chaos alignment system, making it a more explicit good-evil divide and sadly removing a lot of ambiguity regarding variable creature alignments, shunting the monstrous humanoids all firmly in the ‘C’ category.

Angus McBride’s orcs. How’d they all fit into that tower on the cliff? Multiple dungeon levels, obviously.

 

 

The idea of non-evil orcs even has a precedent in Tolkien based on a sentence in The Silmarillion regarding the “War of the Last Alliance”:

‘All living things were divided in that day, and some of every kind, even of beasts and birds, were found in either host, save the Elves only. They alone were undivided and followed Gil-galad.’

This and perhaps the existence of orcs and goblins living an isolated, tribal existence without any direct control from a Dark Lord (Melkor, Sauron, Saruman, etc), is perhaps another reason why orcs also got a pass into the Neutral column.

Advanced Orcology

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons put orcs (and other organised humanoids like goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins) into the Lawful Evil camp. The Monster Manual entry includes a lot of fussing about the details of their lair and force composition.  Perhaps to shore up their place in the new alignment paradigm, their generally unpleasant nature is detailed and strongly emphasised:

Advanced Orcs. Less morally complex, but they know bunch of languages and are good miners

Advanced Orcs. Less morally complex, but they know bunch of languages and are good miners.

Parts of this entry feel like they were written by a particularly catty personal stylist. Despite ramping up the evil (they are now more explicitly bullies and slavers) and ragging on their particularly disgusting appearance, right down to their choice of colour scheme (and in all fairness, the pig face period is one of the derpiest visual representations of the race), orcs remain one of the more fleshed out and sophisticated humanoid races. They still love caravan journeys, and are fiercely loyal to their tribe and leaders, gaining bonuses when their standard is present. A hatred of elves is introduced, which has been noted to not make a whole lot of sense, given that the races have few overlapping territories or resources to fight over. I’d put it down to an upping of the Tolkien element (funnily enough, in the time of balrog to balors and hobbits to halflings, ents to treants etc). The elves also went through an alignment shift from Lawful leaning to Chaotic Good, so perhaps it made sense to set them against the main Lawful Evil humanoid. The MM entry also details one of the trickier bits of the orcish question, their women and children. Gaming forums abound with players wrestling with the moral dilemma of what to do with orc babies after massacring the fighting males. How this is approached will say a lot about any campaign’s tone regarding humanoids and alignment. The entry for orc is Lawful Evil, for groups of 30-300 plus addition leaders, females and young. Does the alignment dictate their dominant group culture? Allegiance to a specific cause? Or is every orc baby born with a heart of authoritarian cruelty?

baby’s first morning star

 

The game changer here here is the introduction of half-orcs. The MM passage is full of weirdness, They’ll breed with anything? Except for elves. So…orc-dragons, orc-dwarves, orc-lizardmen, or what? It piles on the unfortunate implications of orcs by making them into rape monsters, with some uncomfortable echoes of Lovecraftians fear of miscegnation and racial deterioration. The orc-goblins and -hobgoblins, being basically orcs, are completely pointless (as if PCs would notice? They’re in the Caves of Chaos to loot them, not carrying out an anthropological study) and never mentioned again except for one in module S4, whose orcish parentage is noted, to absolutely no mechanical or story disctinction because WTF. Only elves in their ubermenschian pure sparkly +1 with swords and bows awesomeness are immune to orcish contamination. There are echoes of Tolkien again here, although IIRC LoTR half-orcs were the result of magical interference rather than sexual compatibility. Then again, if elves and humans can produce viable offspring, and LoTR orcs are corrupted elves, it makes sense. But D&D orcs and elves are not connected in that way…or are they? It would certainly make more sense of why orcs make such an effort to target them. Orcs, humans and elves exist in a strange relationship where both orcs and elves can breed with humans but not with each other. Half-orc and half-elf pairing? Maybe they cancel each other out and make normal humans. A setting that plays this straight implies to me some kind of dark secret tying together the origins of those three races. Certainly, one can make more out of it than the male adventurer who hopes to win the favour of the hot elf chick and the female adventurer who fears violation at the hands of the nasty orc. A quick google image search for ‘sexy orc’ confirms that both ladies and gentleman are getting down with this.

Ok, so it’s mostly this kind of cheesecake thing. On the internet, why sexualise when you can hyper-sexualise?

 

Since orcs and humans can interbreed and produce viable offspring, this adds a whole new dimension to human-orc relations in the campaign world. For one, it brings them closer to us humans but it also adds an extra dimension to politicking in-game, if that’s your thing. In Borderlands-type situations where humans and orcs co-exist in an uneasy cold-but-periodically-warming-up war, there exists the potential for marriage alliances as a solution to these tensions. This fits in well with D&D’s dark ages default setting, and it is, I think, not unreasonable for a community of humans out in the wildlands to forge alliances with orcs in this manner, perhaps with the children of chieftains. Life in the monster-haunted lands is hard enough as it is, and hard pressed orc and human communities might see that they have a lot to offer each other. Adventurers in a Keep on the Borderlands type of scenario might tackle it differently if one of the orc cheiftains has important family members in the human stronghold, trades with humans for commodities, perhaps lending them his tribes services as caravan guards, miners, etc.

One of my favourites from Ian Miller, which I believe shows a mix of orcs and half orcs

 

So the transition from Original to Advanced D&D has both taken orcs further away from humankind in some aspects, but also brought them together in other important ways. Part 2 in the series will examine the playable incarnation of this, AD&D’s half-orc. Part 3 develops orc tribes in the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, and in part 4 I put forward a few outside the box ideas for using orcs in your games.