Friday, January 4, 2013

The Question of the Half-Orc

Okay, so I really don't like the idea of the half-orc "race" in gaming.  Apparently the idea comes from the Uruk-hai in The Lord of the Rings and first appeared in AD&D (even though I don't remember it).  I don't like idea for two reasons: my basic mental picture of orcs and the subtext of how an orc would mate with a non-orc.

First off, let's take the mental picture.  I remember paintings by the Hildebrandt brothers in a Middle Earth calendar I owned way back when.  One is a scene with the orcs sitting around a fire at night with Merry and Pippin tied up nearby, the other a scene from a siege.  The orcs are depicted with porcine faces, rather like green pig-men or boar-men.  Otherworld Miniatures in the UK has a cool-looking line of miniatures with this look.  I rather liked that visual concept for them.  Later I played AD&D and the drawing of them in the Monster Manual also had the piggy look.  So that's how I always thought of them for gaming.  The AD&D orcs were a race of boar type beast-people: ugly, smelly, aggressive, dangerous, and violent.  No "normal" person (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) would consider mating with them and besides it wouldn't be genetically possible for any mating to be fertile.  I quite literally never considered that such a creature as a half-orc would exist.

Secondly, there's the subtext of rape.  There really is the built-in suggestion that any half-orc must be the result of a violent sexual assault by a male orc against a humanoid female.  I find that disturbing because that subtext was unnecessary.  If the game designers wanted to add a playable race with attributes which complement the fighter or barbarian classes (in the way that the elf complements the wizard or the halfling complements the thief), why didn't they come up with one which stands on its own?  They later added the dragonborn, the warforged, and the goliath.  All of those are strong/tough races which appeal to players.  So why add a race which implies that all of its members are evidence of a crime?  Was it to be more gritty, more edgy, more hardcore, more badass?  Perhaps, but the rest of the game didn't move in that direction.  It stands out as a design decision.  And if the orcs aren't the evil monsters of their reputation, but rather a misunderstood proud tribal people, why not just make them a playable race directly the way World of Warcraft did?  Really, I would prefer to have orcs or hobgoblins as a player race straight up than half-orcs.

There's also the question of half-orcs being accepted into humanoid society.  I just don't find it credible that half-orcs would be accepted in most "civilized" areas.  Sure, you can make that aspect of the character background an element of the campaign and roleplay the interactions.  But wouldn't half-orcs be so rare as to be seen as freakish half-monsters?  Well, perhaps you could have an area of the campaign world where invading orcs wiped out the defending human army, thus killing most of the military age males, and then proceeded to settle on the land and take the women as "wives".  An entire generation of half-orcs would ensue.  I vaguely recall something like that happening with the mongol invasions.  Perhaps if the orcs remained for a couple generations and then withdrew, much as the mongols withdrew from their conquests in the west, an entire region might be left heavily populated with half-orcs.  Several generations after that, or maybe a century or so later the "people" of that area would all be half-orcs but much removed from the original invasion.  That would be a more plausible way to have significant numbers of half-orcs in a campaign world with less social stigma, at least in neighboring countries.

But for the campaign world I'm working on the orcs will be the boar-people of my early imaginings.  They will be one of a number of "beast peoples" created by the nature gods of earth, sky, and sea in imitation of the First Races (dwarf, human, and elf) created by the First Gods.  As literally the children of a lesser god they simply are not cut from the same cloth as the First Races.  The nature gods shaped them using the animal creatures of their respective domains and have not the power to endow them with the same higher innate intellect and cultural talents of the human, elven, and dwarven civilizations.  The orcs and other beast peoples are closer to nature and the nature gods.  They are more feral and animal-like in their behavior and social structures.  And thus they must remain, for such is the essence of their being.


  1. Half breeds always kind of bug me anyway in fantasy games. Right from the get go they make me think of munchkin players, trying to get the best of two races and none of the bad. I think you're right, and that if people want a race with the characteristics described, there should be a way to build it as new race to include in a game. Might be why I find myself playing games less and less that are lass/race based when it comes to character creation...

  2. For my worlds I either go with all humanoid races can interbreed (but usually do not) and mixed breeds do appear or "Sakaian Genetics" where male children follow the father's race and female children the mother's.

    My current campaign (The Sea of Stars) uses the former but I sidestepped the half-orc issue by not having orcs or other "villain races" (see

  3. "No "normal" person (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) would consider mating with them and besides it wouldn't be genetically possible for any mating to be fertile. I quite literally never considered that such a creature as a half-orc would exist."

    That sounds exactly like something said by slavers in the south.

    1. The fact that you would conflate the horrors of slavery in the United States, with the relationships between species (not a different race, a different species) in a fantasy game, saddens me.

      Racism is real, and it is horrible. It is not a convenient way to win arguments. To imply that EPW's statement is on that level is profoundly inappropriate.

  4. So what you're saying is that you find orcs icky, and therefore no one would ever want to bone one. I happen to think men, anime characters, and furries are icky. At the same time, plenty of people want to bone them. If it's too revolutionary in your mind to accept the possibilities of different tastes or alcohol, I question your intelligence and weigh you as less of a person.

    It's my opinion that mating with elves, the creatures which stop aging in appearance at the age of 25 which is when they look like 15 year old humans with pointy ears, far too closely resembles pedophilia. Does that mean I can just will them away? Of course it does; I'm the DM. At the same time, that would be so absolutely stupid and restrict far too many character concepts. Feel free to do whatever you want with orcs, but keep in mind that what you're planning to do is absolutely stupid and restrictive, and your reasoning is highly open to real world criticism.

  5. This is a superb post. I'm particularly happy that you pointed out the obvious subtext of rape which surrounds half-orcs.

    While I myself am conflicted on whether or not I really like Half Orcs, your arguments offer a strong support for removing them from the game.

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  7. Great post. I've never liked half-orcs. Wrote a game 25 years ago that had four races: Human, Elf, Inop, Dwarf. "Inop" was the name we came up with for hobbits so we wouldn't get sued by Tolkein. I believe "Inop" came from a Latin word for "annoying" (I took Latin in high school, but no longer remember much vocab).

    Also, elves and humans can interbreed, but half-elves are sterile (like mules). Thus explaining why you don't have stats for players that are 30% elf or 85% elf.