Monday, February 7, 2022

Orcs: Neither Noble, Nor Savage

Back at the Village of Hommlet...actually, the village of Twisp in the Grand County of Okanogan, Bork the "half-orc" met his end rather quickly, never setting foot in a dungeon proper. He was stabbed in the back by an invisible Fernok of Ferd (4th level thief) while attempting to burgle rooms on the upper floor of the Inn of the Welcome Wench. So ends his tale.

However, Diego was fairly shaken by the the verge that he claimed he hated the game and wanted to quit. He really liked Bork, you see; he had already formed an attachment to the character even before the character had done anything in the game, even though I'd had him roll up multiple characters before the start (in the eventuality that one or more might die). 

Such is the price of investing in a backstory for one's player character. It's but a small step for a DM to allow a "do over," a "take back" to allow the player to retain a cherished character...a character that was only just created and should contain ZERO emotional attachment. And from there it's the slippery slope of fudging dice rolls and changing encounters and turning the game from a game into a farce. THIS is how it starts.

Nope. Not doing that. "Do you really want to quit playing?" No. "All right, then grab another character so you can show up at the Inn." Diego's new character (Langston the elven thief) is doing much better.

We want players to be invested in the game, not their characters...though I readily agree that investment in character is both inevitable AND desirable over the long term. This is why parties will spend copious amounts of treasure to raise a fellow PC (or cherished NPC) that has died in the course of play...especially one with a few levels under his/her belt. But a newly minted 1st level character? No. Roll up a new fighter/assassin, call him Cork the Orc, and away you go.


Since my last post I've been thinking hard about my "indigenous orcs." A lot of great comments on that last post (appreciate the feedback) leading me directly to define how and what the species is in my world. And I started by reading the "orc" entry in the Monster Manual and comparing it with the half-orc player race as described in the PHB and DMG.

The first thing one notices upon reading the MM with a clinical eye is just how slanted the description of the orcs are, pitting the reader against the creature. Gygax sounds like a propagandist in writing, painting a picture of "disgusting" and "unattractive" people; "bullies" who need "strong leaders" to "control the orcs" as they are otherwise likely (75%) to fight each other. They are "cruel," and "hate living things in general." They also "hate the light" despite noting that a quarter of orc villages are found above ground (though these are noted as being "rude" and primitive affairs).

To me, it reads like the biased account intended to drum up hatred for a society as a pretext for aggression, conquest, and subjugation. We've seen similar accounts written up over the years in our Real World, and not just with regard to indigenous peoples...part of going to war with countries post-Enlightenment has often (always?) included similar essays dehumanizing our opponents. Makes it easier for a soldier to see themselves as a "hero," and makes it far easier to put a bullet into a fellow human being.

So, let's chalk this up to someone working for the (human) nobility and not an actual sociologist studying this strange people. Hell, we can even write off the illustrations as exaggerated cartoons...still inhuman, but not quite so much "pig-man." Time for a closer look at this orc species!

Let's start with the basics. Physically, they are roughly human size. Orcs are stated as being 6' + tall, but again, this seems to be an exaggeration as the "half-orc" (per the DMG) is generally smaller and lighter than a human (5'6" and 150# being male average; 5'2" and 120# being female average)...which makes sense considering their maximum strength is LOWER than that of a human. Even if I was using half-orcs as a HYBRID species (I'm not) it makes little sense for the pairing of a large human and a larger orc to result in a smaller, weaker species...that's not how biology works. Instead, you should have something IN BETWEEN (at least) indicating such offspring should be larger and stronger than their human parents.

I am inclined to see the 6'+ description as more propaganda. "They're giants!" No.

Orcs do tend to have more hit points and better fighting ability than your average (non-classed) human: 1 hit die (1-8 hit points) compared to 0-level and 1-6 hit points. However, we know they are a robust species (+1 CON, maximum 19) and since the likely opposition PCs will face are the warriors of the village (rather than non-combatants), this makes sense. The 1-8 points of damage an unarmed orc inflicts is, perhaps, a reflection of their greater average strength (+1 STR, though humans have a greater range). This should not be considered an unarmed attack, but damage done from picking up whatever's at hand: furniture, tools/implements, etc. 

[furthermore, if one considers an orc's "penalty" for fighting in daylight, they are little different from a 0-level human with a high CON. Better to think of them as a species with an ADVANTAGE in darkness, than a truly nocturnal race]

Orcs mature quickly (reaching full adulthood by the age of 16), and can reach an age of 80 or more. Skin color ranges from brown to green with a "bluish sheen" changing to pink at the ears and snout. Hair color ranges from dark brown to black, perhaps fading with age (accounts of some with "tan patches"); warriors cut their hair short (described as "bristly"). 

Their intelligence is listed as "average (low)." Intelligence in D&D is a measure of two things: ability to learn languages and ability to learn sorcery. We know from the MM that the majority of orcs speak at least three languages (goblin and hobgoblin being different dialects of the same tongue), that they are "accomplished tunnelers and miners," and that they engage in construction, build fortifications, manufacture their own armor, and use a variety of weapons and siege equipment. From the DMG, we know that they have their own spell-casters: shamans (clerics) of up to 5th level ability, and the derisively called "witch-doctors" (cleric/magic-users) of up to 4th level ability. The range of 3 to 17 for intelligence given in the PHB seems fine and appropriate.

All the orc images on the internet are crap. Here's a
typical coastal native village from the 19th century
(this is a S'Klallam tribal village near Port Gamble).

Socially, they are little different from humans. I choose to see alignment as proclivity, and being lawful orcs engage in the building of communities, have laws and traditions, hierarchies ("chiefs," "sub-chiefs," etc.) and engage in trade with other humanoid communities (as described in the MM by their caravans, and as evidenced by their speaking the tongue of subterranean goblins). The 1-to-1 ratio of male orc to child orc and 2-to-1 ratio of male orc to female orc suggests a high rate of maternal mortality in childbirth, though this is perhaps due to the present conditions (competing with humans for living space). 

"Evil" alignment can be read as "hostile to humans (and their allies)." They have religion, their own form of worship. They obviously value strength (as do many humans); no wonder they are "fiercely competitive" as this is a way of showing strength and thus proving their worth/value to their community. The practice of slavery enforces this value (again: a show of strength in subjugating their foes). However, slavery generally comes about when there is a need for individuals to provide "work," and a lack of willing individuals to do the work.

[an abundance of land and scarce labor supply...once the indigenous locals had died off...contributed to the first slaves being imported into the Americas. Enslaved child soldiers fill the need of "armies" that don't have enough willing combatants; sexual slavery serves a demand that cannot be met under the values and norms of our polite society. And one can see the decline of serfdom and slavery in Europe and Asia as populations grew and cheap, unsupervised labor became abundant]

The D&D world is an immensely perilous one. Able-bodied orcs are needed to protect communities from large monsters and competitive humanoids (like the rival elves and...later...humans). Someone is still needed to grow food for the community, farming and raising animals. Slaves help fill that role for the orcs, especially given the need to preserve females for childbearing. It should probably go without saying that not all Orc communities engage in the practice of slavery.

The disproportion of adult female to male orcs does not necessarily suggest a matriarchal organization, nor even polyandrous relationships. Instead, the value of strength is again exhibited as males unwilling or unable to "prove" themselves are left without mates. Females, especially those proven to be good mothers, will have higher value/status in the tribe, but "environmental considerations" (the hostile D&D setting) contribute to an emphasis on war leaders and battle captains. 

"Cruelty" is in the eye of the beholder. Slavery is cruel to the enslaved (and to those who find slavery abhorrent). "Bullying" is practiced in all walks of human life. Deities & Demigods states the orcs' worship of Gruumsh (in my mind, the orcish word for "God") requires monthly sacrifices of blood...but that doesn't necessarily mean human sacrifice (nor the sacrifice of slaves or fellow orcs!). A goat, ram, or other ritually raised animal works fine and would be little different from historical human practices.

[another DDG note: "raiment" from Gruumsh includes a war helm and black plate mail; this is clearly a bit better than the usual orc armor described in the MM, and more evidence that the orcs' manufacturing ability is on par with humans, at least when it comes to personal armaments]

While the MM's author objects to the specific colors orcs enjoy, the fact remains that the orcs use colors (dyes and whatnot) and have their own sense of style and fashion. They are not primitive cavefolk eking out a subsistence existence. They also use standards and livery, and exhibit a great sense of martial pride (see their bonus when it comes to defending their battle standard). The DMG (page 16) describes:
Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. 
To me, this says they are straightforward and plain-talking, unconcerned with subtleties of speech and the niceties of (human) etiquette. They speak their mind. They are practical and pragmatic. That doesn't mean they aren't polite or honorable (in their own way), but asserting oneself loudly is (again) a means of showing strength...something they value. Because the weak have a hard time surviving the wilds and the depredations of elves. 

Ah, the elves. Long before the humans arrived, the orcs have been warring with elves. And why? Because they want the same things: Land. Resources. Access to timber, water ways, food supply. The elves (who I will discuss in a later post) have gotten the upper hand over the years (most likely by dint of superior magic), resulting in the orcs seeking shelter and homes in subterranean lairs (the majority of orc villages). Regrettably, this has pushed them into conflict with the subterranean dwarves and gnomes in recent years (the PHB p.18 notes a hatred for dwarves and gnomes, rather than simple antipathy with elves...the more recent conflict burns hotter). 

The newly arrived humans have been more curse than blessing for the beleaguered orcs. The humans have much in common with the orcs, and lack the history of ancestral feuding, but they also have the need for the same land. The physical features of the orc race make humans less amenable to them than to other demihumans, and the orcs have little to offer compared to the other species on the planet (elves: magic, dwarves: crafting, gnomes: gemstones, etc.). Orcs are a competitive species with the humans, a rival with little to offer in trade. Their practices of slavery and blood sacrifice make them seem "primitive" in the eyes of humans; their inhuman features and working relationship with goblinoids and ogres make them feared and "dangerous" in comparison to the more human-appearing species. 

[it also doesn't help that humans making friends with the fairer-appearing elves and dwarves has automatically put orcs in the "enemy-of-my-ally" category]

And, yet, some humans and orcs have found the ability to inter-relate with each other. Some humans have taken it upon themselves to "pound the orc out" of (usually) orc children, teaching them the ways of "sophistication;" other less-scrupulous humans see the orcs as easily manipulated muscle for their own agendas...expendable mercenaries, easily bought with promises of land and revenge on hated elves, dwarves, etc. For their part, some orcs have decided it's better to live among the humans, learning their ways, then continue to fight a losing war of cultural competition. 


While orcs have their own forms of worship and magic, shamans and "witch-doctors" are not available as player character classes. Only the classes listed in the PHB (as for half-orc) are available, along with the multi-class and level restrictions listed. Single-class orcs may add +2 to the maximum level in any particular class, subject to normal restrictions (for example, no assassin may progress beyond 15th level).

Orcish player characters have lived and trained extensively with humans. As such, they receive neither the bonuses, nor penalties of other orcs (with regard to fighting in daylight or near an orcish battle standard, etc.). Player character clerics have been initiated into the humans religious practices and advance as a standard cleric, not a shaman, including normal wisdom adjustments; no such character may achieve a level in cleric beyond 4th (6th level if single-classed). All orc player characters speak the common tongue of humans as well as the language of their orc tribe; additional languages can be learned subject to their intelligence.

Player character orcs have both a charisma score and an adjusted charisma score. The adjusted score is two less than the original roll, and never higher than 12, unless magically increased. The adjusted charisma is ONLY used when interacting with humans, elves (and half-elves), dwarves, and gnomes. The adjusted charisma score does not preclude the orc character from entering non-assassin professions.

An orc may be raised from the dead as any other PC race.


  1. Concerning Orc armor, I like to interpret the "pig faced orc" as hillbilly humans fighting orcs wearing pig faced bascinets, and not realizing it's a helmet. This implies Orc have sophisticated metallurgy and industry required to make high quality armor. In my world this results in Orc Steel being highly prized, like Damascus steel, and the orcs have the equivalent of 14th/15th century tech, while humans have 10th/11th.

  2. Hey there. I was sitting here reading your post after a shift at the hospital, and some of your statements grabbed my attention and got me thinking. Specifically, I was thinking about the incident with Diego and the death of his recently created character. More specifically, I was considering alternative ways his character’s death might connect to your statement, “We want players to be invested in the game, not their characters...” While I personally believe positing a strict dichotomy between game investment and character investment may result in ignoring some important connections between the two, I’m not commenting here to argue that point or dissuade you of it. Instead, I was thinking of character death, and reactions to character death, as an experience of loss, specifically intrapsychic loss (the loss of dreams, future possibilities, what may have been, etc.). Anyone who has worked with people who have experienced loss, whether the loss of a love one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of physical functionality, etc., probably has learned that such loss is often characterized by grieving the loss of “what may have been.” Diego’s character’s death and reaction to his character’s death might be understood as a kind of intrapsychic loss in that he has now lost all previously imagined possibilities, dreams, and aspirations he had for that specific Orc character in the game and in your campaign setting/world. As a result, he grieves and expresses that grief in a specific way. Now, another thing about loss is that we know that the stronger the emotional attachment, the stronger the feelings associated with the loss. Your post suggests that you recognize a level of attachment, but you attribute this to putting too much investment in the character itself by way of things like pre-play backstory. Ok, I think there certainly is truth in that. You go on to stress that, instead, one should invest in the game. However, I want to suggest (and I am thinking on the fly here after a long shift dealing with people’s loss) that the very game investment you stress and expect from players will ALSO bring about intrapsychic loss after a character death, even characters made with absolutely no backstory, because there has, indeed, been an investment made in the game. For instance, there has been a loss of “what may have been” in terms of the lost possibilities for playing that particular Orc in your particular campaign setting. Finally (I know this is getting long), just so you know that I am not reducing game investment to mean only campaign investment, I want to suggest Diego has also has experienced intrapsychic loss because he has invested in the actual game itself, especially a game with you. He may have looked forward to engaging in certain aspects of the game itself…in a new and specific way…with that specific character…with you. All those dynamics are part of the game one has invested. I’ll have to consider this some more myself after I get some rest. Like you, I’m all about not fudging death. I also tell players to roll up that next character. I’m merely suggesting that game investment may also be connected with the loss experienced after a character death because that investment also creates certain kinds of attachment that can be linked to a player’s character. Anyway, I really appreciate your post, so thanks for sharing! My apologies for the lengthy comment. Peace.

    1. Actually, in talking to Diego today, he says he was just upset because Bork's (rolled) ability scores were so good, including an 18/93 strength and an 18 constitution.
      ; )

      However, I appreciate the analysis and I think there IS something to it. I DO want players to be invested and, as I wrote, I think it's both an INEVITABLE and DESIRABLE part of long term play.

  3. lol. Classic. Good rolls...yea, that's probably still intrapsychic loss. He's lost out on (at least temporarily) what it would have been like to play a badass half-orc that had awesome ability scores.

  4. "He was stabbed in the back by an invisible Fernok of Ferd (4th level thief) while attempting to burgle rooms on the upper floor of the Inn of the Welcome Wench."

    Before I make ANY comment on this, I'd like to ask how much the stabbing by Fernok was influenced by the CHOICE Diego made to burgle rooms.

    1. Diego decided he wanted to "investigate" the upstairs rooms. He had been shown to his by a rather hassled innkeeper's son, and then left to his own devices as their was a large gathering of individuals in the downstairs.

      For each room he approached, he listed to the door and then picked the lock. On the second door (Fernock's) I had already determined (via die roll) that the thief was present. His listening roll was a success: he could hear someone in the room. He then decided to bluff his way in by disguising his voice and pretending to be the innkeeper bringing the guy food.

      The disguise roll (made by Diego) failed. He realized he had done a poor job of impersonating the innkeep. The 4th level thief inside thought, "what the hell is this?" But he's a 4th level thief with a ring of invisibility, so he slipped it on and said, "Sure bring the food in and set it on the table."

      Bork was surprised at the invitation; however, he drew his sword and proceeded to enter.

      An unfamiliar orc with drawn blade and no food enters the thief's room. It seemed reasonable to me that a 4th level thief would take the opportunity to backstab such an intruder and then call for assistance. Which he did.

      However, his damage roll was enough to fell the PC with one blow. He still screamed bloody murder, but by the time the guest arrived the PC was mostly bled white (or pale grey) on the floor.

    2. Then this has next to nothing to do with "grief" counselling over the loss of a loved one, or game investment vs. character investment. Diego took a risk in a GAME and, failing to hit a payoff, got the negative consequence of that risk.

      I'm sure Diego is perfectly aware of this, being your son and carrying your ethics and traits, JB, but I feel someone needs to say it. He took an action. He got dinged for it. Hopefully, he'll think twice about doing something so foolish again, as a 1st level character in a world with 4th level characters in it. He'll LEARN. He'll be a better player. And he'll move steadily towards working as a PARTY in the game, and not as a freelance individual.

      THIS is why there should be no fudging and changing encounters and take-backs. Just as eventually children learn that moving their bishop wrongly can make them lose, they learn how to move their bishop otherwise.

      It's inappropriate to make any connection with "loss" ... since with grief over losing a real person, the self-blame we experience is the thing that must be gotten over; whereas with a game, the self-blame we experience through making an error is the thing that must be EMBRACED. It's how we improve.

      Totally a different dynamic here.

    3. I agree. And as a father who has been ruthless when it comes to playing my son in chess, I can honestly say I was pleased and proud when he checkmated me with a surprising set of moves that I never saw coming.

      Diego's next elven thief...did NOT attempt to burgle the rooms, just by the way...
      ; )

    4. Alexis, you make some important points. However, I want to address other aspects of your reply that I feel are problematic. Your reply implies things I never said or even suggested. This response is to offer some clarification and corrections.

      First, absolutely no where did I suggest any “grief counseling” or indicate the issue being considered was about counselling with a player. I never provided advice on how JB might counsel his son in dealing with grief. I did align myself with JB regarding how he handles character death. As indicated in my comment, my way of handling the death of a character was exactly like JB’s. That is, roll up another character and get back in the game. For that matter, my response to the situation seems to align with your response. Lastly, I invite you to re-read your last paragraph and consider who, between the two of us, actually provided advice-like-counseling on how to deal with grief.

      Again, my posted comment was about suggesting an alternative way to understand a player’s reaction to character’s death. This is a different topic than what you are stressing. But let me pause to say something first. I absolutely agree with you regarding your comments about risk. Yes, Diego took a risk. And yes, there are consequences when taking such a risk does not pay off. And yes, I believe, like you and JB, that the consequences should be enforced (also indicated in my original comment). Yes, players (ideally) should adapt and learn if they desire to become better players. My post does not mention this because I was not commenting on this, let alone disagreeing with this position.

      However, while I agree with your comments about risk, I do disagree with how you have framed the conversation as an either-or situation when it can certainly be a both-and conversation. Yes, Diego took a risk. However, that in no way changes the fact (as provided by JB) that Diego reacted to the consequences of that risk in a certain way. THAT, was what I was commenting on. I was suggesting an alternative way to understand that reaction beyond limiting the explanation to a player backstory. JB’s blog included his understanding of Diego’s reaction (see his original comments about it possibly being connected with too much character investment in the form of character backstory). I suggested another way to understand the reaction, and I suggested it in a non-definitive way.

      For all your comments about risk, even though accurate, you seem to be missing this point, or purposely ignoring it. Diego’s risk does not explain his emotional reaction, and emotional it was if we are to believe JB. For example, JB wrote that “he was fairly shaken by the death…to the verge that he claimed he hated the game and wanted to quit.” Later, in JB’s reply to me, he adds that Diego was “upset.” What I am trying to suggest is that despite taking a risk, and despite enforcing consequences, how might we understand what upset the player because such a reaction is very much connected with the relational dynamics of game. I suggested the concept of intrapsychic loss as one possibility for understanding the reaction. I suggested this because I disagreed with JB in what seemed to be an overly reductionistic explanation pertaining to character backstory. I am not suggesting it is the only way to understand the matter, or even the correct way; it’s merely an alternative way.

      Now, you may not be interested in considering this line of thought. Or, you might not care about the player’s reaction in this situation. That’s fine. You may even want to suggest we focus on something else like player risk. That’s fine, too. But to suggest that I am completely off base when you’re clearly not talking about the same thing as I am is something else altogether.

    5. That's completely fair also. When teaching a young person to play chess, say, the instructor has to be conscious of the difficulty and dashed feelings of the student ... as any complex game can easily overwhelm a young, inexperienced player. Unless the DM, or the father in JB’s case, is some kind of monster, it’s correct to address emotional reactions for what they are.

      I disagree that these reactions are “intrapsychic loss” or any other self-AWARENESS of “what may have been” or “campaign investment.” These explanations may be bandied about in the comforts of our psychological parlours, but they have very little to do with the concrete business of teaching children how to play hard games. What we have here is “frustration” ... a purely reflex response by an animal deprived of success, trained into the human biology by 2 million years of equating success with “Yay, we get to eat tonight.”

      You may conflate the issue as you wish. You stated earlier that you were “thinking on the fly here after a long shift dealing with people’s loss.” So, in fact, you had the hammer in your hand, and seeing what JB wrote, you decided it was a nail.

      When you’ve got a hammer, EVERYTHING looks like a nail. How much is this diagnosis about you, and how much of it is about Diego?

    6. Hello again. A fair response, and even though we have areas of disagreement on this topic it seems to me that we both now at least understand what the other is talking about despite those disagreements. I only have a few remarks. I don’t disagree with your observation that my in-the-moment reflections on JB’s post were influenced by my work and shift at the hospital yesterday evening. Absolutely, and I am aware of that. It’s part of the reason I responded to his post, because what I read could be easily connected/interpreted in terms of what was already swirling around in my head. So yea, part of my understanding is certainly about me drawing upon my lived experiences to understand aspects of this game that I engage in. I believe we all do this to one extent or another. But I was certainly primed. (I am not, however, making this specifically about Diego, he just happened to be the player that had the character death in the post. My reflections are about pondering the reactions of any player to their character’s death.)

      Anyway, admitting that also does not necessarily invalidate the observation…but I’m not responding to argue that. That is, I’m not trying to shove such spontaneous and tentative reflections on the topic down anyone’s throat. It was offered up as alternative consideration that also happens to be very interesting to me because the reasons you’ve already partially observed. You’ve now added another alternative explanation of your own with your comments on frustration and human biology. Ok, I can see your point, and while I can see that being true in some contexts, I’m not currently convinced that would help understand player’s reactions to character death in all such situations. I’ll have to consider the topic more, however.

      Lastly, I want to also share that part of value I see in considering a player’s reaction is not simply so DMs can understand such reactions to formulate some appropriate response. I think how a DM understands such reactions (whether connected with intrapsychic loss, primal frustration, or something else) informs how a DM will understand other aspects of the game. For example, JB’s view on the matter informs how he understands and values (or devalues) the idea of pre-play character backstory. I find this interesting and explanatory.

      Peace & Goodnight

    7. Come around and read my blog sometime, Rambling Cleric. I've enjoyed this.

  5. With first edition, I ended up sometime in the 90s taking a general position that if a character dies in the first game at first level we say he is just incapacitated. unless it’s suicide or something completely stupid. I don’t usually make the first game particularly dangerous, but if it happens I like a new character to at least make it to second level. I’ve gone back on this here and there in some campaigns with all seasoned players and friends, but I really like to give a new player a break in the first game. By second level it’s game on and you’re better play careful and smart.

    I’m kind of torn on this with fifth edition. For whatever reason that seems less necessary.

    1. I've never run 5E, but having read the rule set I'd probably err on the side of NOT giving players a break (there's enough breaks already built in).

    2. I should maybe mention I usually have pcs go to second level after game one in 1st ed, unless its an especially easy session or half the session is character creation. I certainly don’t do that in 5th. Due to the breaks you mention.

    3. Starting is always (in my experience) a bit slow. In general I find that once a party gets a few levels under their belt, it’s easier to sustain success (new 1st levels advance quickly when working with experienced veterans, and the old guard often has the resources to bring back the dead and diminished).

      But starting out can be tough when everyone is level 1. Makes TPKs at high level truly devastating!