Friday, February 4, 2022

A Different "Half-Orc"

SO...last night (Thursday) my players were creating new PCs for the campaign (because their others are all dead...natch) and my son rolled up a half-orc fighter/assassin; his FIRST half-orc character as far as I can recall.

[we don't use alignment in our games and this is far from the first assassin we'e seen, but it is (perhaps) interesting that it's taken this long to get a multi-classed one]

Right on, I said. A half-orc, huh? To which he replied something along the lines of: "Yeah, I'm thinking he was kidnapped from his orc-mother's village by humans when he was a child and forced into a reeducation program similar to what was done to Native Americans. How's that for a backstory?" Well, we really don't do backstories (he laughs), but that's not a bad one. How does he feel about orcs? "Well, he sees orcs as his people, really, and hates humans for what they did to him and other village children."

I pointed out to him that his sister's character is a human (and a cleric to boot...a lot of those Indian Residential Schools were run by Catholics or Christian missionaries). At which point he started bending over backwards to create more backstory justifying their relationship and reasons for adventuring and...'No, never mind. Not important.' Because, of course, THAT's not. The game is not about exploring complicated social dynamics based on race and trauma, the bonds of camaraderie and friendship, and the acrimony of historic abuse and cultural genocide.

Thank goodness. That wouldn't be nearly as fun.

However, as I sat in church today (my kids attend Catholic school and since the pandemic, they alternate which classes get to attend Mass on was my daughter's class)...I reflected on this. On this sordid piece of my religious/cultural history. It is/was a really f'ing sad piece of work all that the Catholic Church has yet to apologize for (the Pope is scheduled to meet with delegates from some 30 indigenous American tribes this March...we'll see what happens).

Because...all awfulness kid's idea for using "half-orcs" is kind of brilliant.

I've done a lot of things with orcs in my games over the years. First, of course, they were just another evil minion monster looking to follow a strong evil leader (the classic trope). Later, they were "beastmen," the common sword & sorcery trope, some sort of not-quite-evolved, more bestial human (see the Moldvay description). At times, I've wanted to use them in the Tolkien evil "fey" (fairy) race, either evil by nature or corrupted by some dark power (Tolkiens' orcs are "broken" elves)...however, this always steps on the toes of the various goblinoids.

More recently, I've postulated orcs as either some sort of "created" servitor race (most likely by the sorcerous elves, for whom they hold enmity) that have thrown off their shackles and established their own brutal civilization OR ELSE "orcishness" is a type of magical mutation that occurs in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, while "half-orcs" are simply first generation mutants; the PA spin on the S&S beastman trope.

What I haven't, at using the orcs as analogous to any real world people. I don't see them as Mongols or Huns or "noble savages" of ANY sort. I haven't had the desire to replace real world cultures, I definitely don't see humans in D&D as "white Europeans only" and I always wanted solid reasons for PCs to have adversarial relationships with these subterranean, cannibalistic, tool-using sentients. They ain't all.

And yet, in AD&D we have half-orcs. And, heck, they're one of only three races that can (as a matter or the PHB rules) be clerics. Wha-wha-what?

One of the things I liked about the B/X rules were their complete lack of semi-humans (half-orcs and half-elves). Leaving aside the old school racism of the "half-breed" trope (ugh!) can we say these are different species and NOT reproductively compatible with each other? Just what kind of fantasy are we playing here? If this is Greek myth...well, okay, anyone can breed with anything (that's how you get minotaurs, for example). But given the kitchen sink nature of the setting, you go too far down that road and you end up with something resembling Piers Anthony's Xanth novels. And that's NOT really the kind of game I want to run...not even close.

Now, if orcs (and elves) are just variant neanderthals and cro-magnons and whatnot...with genetic compatibility...well, okay, sure. But then orcs should be able to breed with elves...and the rules are pretty explicit in THAT prohibition (one assumes this is, again, because of Tolkien...but Tolkien himself had the orcs as corrupted elves. And drawing on northern European myth, why not have marriages between light and dark fairies? Um...pretty sure that was a thing, once upon a time).

Do I want orc-elves? No. I do not.

So, I'm considering riffing off my kid's backstory in my world's concept of "half-orcs." In my campaign humans are a transplanted species...they've only been on the planet for two or three centuries (long enough that their history...where they came from, how they got mostly mysterious and lost knowledge). They are the "new kids on the block;" the other sentients were there long before with long established relationships and histories. 

Despite that...and despite the hostility they face from MANY of the sentient species on the planet...humanity is an ascendant species and have quickly adapted and, in many parts, taken over the local. There is still hostile "wilderness" to be explored (and conquered) but humanity has already managed to carve out multiple kingdoms in the region...kingdoms connected by tenuous strands of humanity.

The elves...and their relationship with humans (both socially and genetically) something I won't get into today, but it's fairly mapped out. The orcs, on the other hand, aren't something I considered before, other than: A) they're one of the indigenous species (unlike humans), B) they're antagonistic to the humans, and C) their capabilities (game-wise) are more-or-less as described in the PHB.

Now, however, I am thinking of half-orcs as something much more similar to the indigenous peoples of North America, and their relationship with the "new" humans being something very much like that of the indigenous people to the white (and black) settlers that came to the (Pacific Northwest) region in the 1800s.

[my game world is set in the game map is Washington State and the surrounding area]

Unlike the actual indigenous people, orcs are not humans. However, they are close enough that the humans have attempted to assimilate them into their culture...much the way as Canadian and US governments attempted to reprogram native peoples with their own values, customs, languages, etc. And using similarly brutal and inhumane methods.

A "half-orc" then is NOT a hybrid species of human and orc. Instead, it is an orc that has been taken and culturally re-educated by the humans (good-intentioned or not). They've been taught the language, taught the skills, learned the values and etiquette, all in an attempt to make the creature "less orc." The classes available to the half-orc (fighters, clerics, thieves, and assassins) are the only ones humans would deign to teach an orc (and clerics only to 4th level), or that orcs could pick up on their own. Sorcery? Absolutely not...though within their OWN culture, they teach their own versions of sorcery and clerical magic (using the tribal spellcaster rules on page 40 of the DMG). Such individuals...derisively referred to as "witch doctors" by the humans...are not available as player characters, as their powers are only used for the good of their peoples, rather than "adventure."

Non-indoctrinated orcs, then, have far different cultural priorities than the average adventure-seeking humans. It's not that orcs who retain their own upbringing and social structure don't (sometimes) get the urge to go out and plunder an ancient ruin...but the game is not about those individuals. It's about the humans (and human-accepted) who cooperate, hang out in (human) towns/cities, and look to increase their wealth, prestige, and standing (amongst human-types). 

Nothing halfway
about this guy....
The orc peoples...of which there are many tribes and traditions...are just a little too hostile to the encroaching humans to mix easily into an adventuring party. Those that do can ALL be considered "half-orc," or rather "half-human," based on their different perspective and outlet. Not all of them will hate and resent humans, though most will have mixed feelings about them. 

Not sure why this particular approach to humanoids feels better than human-on-human violence that was so off-putting when I considered setting my game in historic South America. It's not because the actions of American settlers in the west was any less egregious than what happened in (what is now called) Latin America...just research a bit about the Yakima War for a taste of that action. But for some reason, it doesn't feel so problematic to me. Perhaps, I just have more of a handle on the local history and politics, that I feel I can steer the narrative better. Perhaps using "fantasy races" I feel like there's the opportunity to resolve things in a different (maybe better) way. Perhaps I've just grown and matured the last couple years and feel capable of dealing with the harsh reality of colonialism and racial relations.

Or maybe it's just that my children (who are my players) have some understanding of real world history and won't just be going "Cowboys and Indians" on the poor old orcs.

I don't know, but I'm digging on the whole concept. It opens some other issues, of course (like, what exactly is up with Lavinia and her half-orc sons in UK2: The Sentinel...are they adopted? Is she some sort of horrible ex-teacher from an Orc Boarding School?). But the more I reflect on it, the more I find the subject matter something I want to engage with. I hope Diego's new PC can stay alive for a while...I'll be interested to see where his adventures take him.


  1. I've been putting together an AD&D setting set in an alternate North America, and I settled on making orcs a sort of cross between humans, cicadas, and bears. The majority of their population spends years at a time hibernating, while only a fraction stays up top to monitor the situation. Then, after a given time, they reawaken and descend on the surrounding world, immensely hungry from their long slumber.

    The indigenous humans have long since learned their schedules and decided that greeting the orcs with tribute and treaty is preferable to literally being eaten out of house and home, and the European settlers have slowly learned the same.

    Once their hunger is sated they're not especially hostile to humans at all, and there's been some cultural and genetic exchange between them, though not yet to any great degree. When orcs hibernate, they dream, simulating possible futures, and they share information within this collective hallucination with immense speed and recall. One missionary taught an orc Hamlet and every orc on the eastern seaboard has been quoting 'To sleep, perchance to dream' ever since.

    The longer an orc tribe sleeps, the hungrier and more aggressive they are when they wake. Legends tell of an orc tribe beyond the Ozarks with a hibernatory period measured in centuries, due to awaken soon. If they do, the first major power they're likely to meet are the servants of the Witch-King of Wichita, and if they form an alliance, the whole continent will be bathed in fire.

  2. I swear, trying to track which tenets of D&D you hold dear and which ones you don't give me whiplash sometimes. LOL

    You do use Level Limits for Race but don't use Alignment? Backstories are bad but there's tons of World Building?

    Why? What is the purpose of fictional world history, cultures, and politics if the PCs aren't part of said elements? This isn't a criticism. I'm honestly curious how it all works.

    1. Adam: those questions are great, because they show how far apart we are in our perspectives.

      I will try to get to this in a later post. Thanks!

  3. Interesting. I had never thought of that. Though I would avoid replacing simplistic templates with simplistic templates. I was blessed by a wife descended from American Indians with a grandmother who is of the Iroquois. On the other hand, she's also descended from a famous pioneer woman whose family was kidnapped and brutally murdered by Indian tribes who then kept her as a slave until she escaped. Long and short, have those 'orcs' be a complex people capable of unimaginable savagery who run into an encroaching civilization capable of the same. That would add even more flavor. It would also be more true to the historical inspiration.

    1. Humans are complex creatures, capable of great compassion and great savagery, great kindness and great cruelty.

      Unlike humans…historical and present…I would like my orcs to be, mmm, less complex. The game is not, in the main, about inter-species relationships, and it is still human-centric, with good reason: namely, as humans, we can only fully relate to a human species, with human biology, psychology, emotional structure, etc.

      The presence of alien sentient beings has the primary purpose of providing spice and variety (not to mention specific player choices/options) in a fantasy game.

      All that being said: no need not to learn SOMEthing about the ways human beings perpetrate atrocities, and the consequences of those actions. And even a fantasy species can help in describing allegory.

    2. That's true. As a theologian I read once said, humans are part angel, part alley cat. But that idea of half-orcs as simply indigenous people got my mind to wondering. Trying to avoid simplistic templates of the past, I though of the complexities of the interactions between the Europeans and Indians. For instance, for many Europeans, Indians were simply 'redskins'. On the other hand, for many Native Americans, Europeans were simply 'whiteskins'. That general clash of generalities almost ensured the inability for the two to coexist, unfortunately. And, of course, not all Native Americans see history in the modern popular template. Some are proud Americans who renounce the current hermeneutic. How would that play out in the half-orc scenario? Some assimilated because they wanted to. Others because they begrudgingly had so. How does that play out in not knowing what you're dealing with in a given situation. Also, how to deal with two peoples who might still be at odds, with each doing unto the others. True, you can't - and probably shouldn't - try to unpack the history of humanity in a fantasy D&D setting. Yet the complexities can certainly make for throwing some interesting curveballs in play.

    3. Exactly. I think we're on the same page here.

      To be clear:

      "Half-orcs" (as I describe them) are orcs who have been acculturated to human ways. This may have been done willingly or not. "Half-orc" is a derisive term...the individual would still (probably) call themselves an orc.

      A human's perspective of such an individual would vary based on their own inclinations, biases, open/closed-mindedness, and xenophobia.

      Regardless of how others see them, the half-orc is a member of two cultures (human and orc) having learned something from both, and will have their own feelings on these cultures and their relationship to them.

      However, they are NOT a hybrid species.

  4. I really like this, thanks. The "half-human" races never really sat well with me so I'll definitely be stealing this.

    So, in the same vein, what are half-elves? Elves drawn to human settlements by wanderlust to enjoy drinking, gambling, fighting and debauchery perhaps, never really fitting in but never content with elvish civilisation?

    1. Elves are different…that’s a whole ‘nother post.

    2. Looking forward to it.

      I've been having daydreams about rich human spinsters wanting them as expensive curiosities. All the fashionable ladies at court have an elf baby...

    3. I'll expand in detail (perhaps later this week). Hopefully my answers won't disappoint.

  5. I always did my best not to have non-humans in my game world be a real-world analogy for something.

    I like my orcs to be of the irredeemable Tolkien "broken elf" variety created by ancient dark lord(s). And half-orcs the product of "orcs meet humans" survivors. Though the interpretation described here is certainly more family friendly. In this particular case using "social issues n' stuff" has its rightful place.

    1. It doesn’t have to be “family friendly,” assuming you’re talking inter-species sexual congress and/or rape. I.e. all that could still be part of your campaign world (both “on-screen” or “off,” depending on taste).

      All I’m really doing here is A) defining different biological entities as non-compatible for the sake of reproduction, and B) postulating a way of using the existing game mechanics in a way that is sensible AND creates opportunity for inter-species relationships and/or adventure ideas.

      RE: corrupted Tolkien orcs

      That certainly works as well, especially in a more mythic/fairy tale style game. Plenty of mileage to get out of that (especially when you have a diabolical superpower like a Satan or Sauron character). Works even better when the “mythic underworld” has a direct connection to hell (at the lowest levels) and orcs are simply “mortals gone bad.”

      What I like about the version I’ve described in this post, though, is it gives me some idea about what to do with all the orphaned orc children that tend to crop up in a typical D&D game.
      ; )

  6. Orkworld definitely has some influences in this direction (Orks as tribal hunter-gatherer wanderer types - who of course view themselves as the truly civilized).

    One of the notable things about settler contact with Indigenous civilizations was the settler tendency to take off and join them. Does half-orc also include humans acting Orcish?

    And at least at initial contact, there was a LOT written about how healthy, strong and noble the natives were. How would that play in?

    You also definitely need those Orcs who are half-orcing by choice, because there was a hefty component of that. Not that the other Orcs need to think much of it.

    1. Your first question is an easy answer:


      The second question is a bit more complicated. Unlike European contact with indigenous peoples in the "New World," these ain't humans being encountered. This is not a strange batch of persons who (despite differences in culture and melanin level) are, more-or-less, the same.

      As a species unto itself (trying to carve out its own place in the shared ecosystem) its sheer INCOMPATIBILITY leads more to competition than cooperation. Orcs willing to "half-orc by choice" will still NEVER be human, and while such a creature may find love, friendship, and/or respect amongst humans, it will always be a bit of an outsider.

      "Well, ol' Groot's been running the trading post for 15 years, and he's pretty decent. Yeah, he's really only HALF-orc, haha. Nah, doesn't even eat his enemies or anything..."

      While there are probably individual humans who respect orc culture, have an interest in studying it, or even "wish they were orc," the fact remains that they are not and cannot be orc...except by use of magic.

      Which in D&D is ALWAYS a possibility.
      ; )

      Orkworld is a great piece of writing, a book that sits proudly on my shelf. It is also a game I've never actually played with anyone. Still, it's got some good stuff in it, and it's not a bad source to rip off if you want to turn your orc clan culture into something more than pig-faced minions of Darkness.