Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Orcs Are Not Different

This is a post I thought I'd never do, but it's been a long time coming.

The catalyst for this entry is (not surprisingly I suppose) the many posts on the internet by innumerable Gamemasters touting how utterly unique their particular snowflake Orcs are.

Then I got to thinking about this one post of mine. Also question and answer number 46 on this one. There are other posts as well. (If you are interested, use the Search function in the upper left hand corner with the key word 'Orc')

What spurred me on further was this recent post, which was inspired by this one, which in turn originated with this one I believe. None of which I really care about (Nothing wrong with them. As valid a discussing as any other in the gaming blogsphere I suppose) as they get into too much book-keeping minutiae for my tastes.

They did get me to thinking about Orcs though...and how much I thoroughly despise them.

Let me get this off my chest, right from the start.

I hate Orcs. Hate'em.

Not creature-I-love-to-hate kinda hate. I just vehemently dislike them.

For me, the Orc* symbolizes a lot of what I don't like about Dungeons & Dragons type fantasy.

They are not creatures of myth or folklore, no matter how hard the Wikipedia entry tries to relate them to something from a pre-Tolkien source. They originated in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and have since gone on to infest and permeate so many fantasy related stories and games that, for me, black mold and hay fever are more welcome.

They are uninteresting to me in the extreme. Mechanically, they do nothing exciting. No special or challenging abilities, no unusual traits, nada. Why use them instead of a Goblin, a Hobgoblin or simply a Human brigand? Ah yes, because that are the ones in the rule book with the correct set of hit points and such. No Goblin could have that many hit points! No Troll would be that weak! Logic I say!

Visually, they are usually fairly boring in design. What is special about the Orcish face, the Orcish visage? Anything? Fifty percent of the time they are muscular, bulky, and green. The other half of the time, they are pale, ugly, and built like normal people, though sometimes smaller.

Oh how I long for those rare occasions when they look like gray, frog-beast people, or green lizard-pigs. Ah, those were the days.

All in all, I just don't care for them. This feeling is made all the more intense by all the GMs who take them, and 'do something different with them'. Spare me. Doing something different with them would be not using them. Better yet, it would be creating your own, original monstrous humanoid.

Tolkien made these guys up. Go make up your own. Lazy bastards.

Your Orcs are not different. Neither are mine.

So, in the interest of equal ridicule, here are my Orcs:

On the rare occasions when I run D&D (usually my homebrewed D&D AD system, aka, 'D&D-But-Not'), you will practically never run into an Orc. It is extremely rare to even see an Orc in games set on my world of Aerth.

According to my world's myths and historical records, Orcs (a Kind** of Goblin) were quite numerous and widespread at one time.

The legend goes that after all the pantheons of gods divvied up the world, each taking a region for their people, they chuckled, and said to the first great Goblin King, "You can have all the rest.".

Overjoyed, the Goblin King looked at the Map of the World that the gods had laid out to survey his domains. All that was left for him and the Goblin race were swamps, bogs, dark corners of drafty caves and canyons, burnt out forests, and farmland where nothing would grow.

The Goblin King face fell, but his eldest son began to laugh, a bitter, cold sound like icicles cracking in a deep cave. "You seek to rob us of the world's riches, but have handed us the keys to take them. We will flourish in the rotten and unhappy places. We will breed in the swamps and play in the marsh. We will hunt on the sallow farmland, and grow Goblin fruit in the desiccated woods. We will live in the caves. We will strike from the darkness."

During the Great Goblin War, when the then current Goblin King united all the Kinds** of the Goblin race together, it was Orcs, said to have descended from the first king's eldest son, who served as the first strikers and the front lines of nearly every battle. At the wars end, with the alliance of Man, Dwarf, Elf and Wilder victorious, Orcs needed a way to rebuild. Knowing little beyond fighting, most adult male Orcs took jobs as mercenaries, guards and other soldiers of fortune. Many tribes of Orcs took to living in the ruins of old castles and dungeons, or the wrecks of ships that had crashed on rocks, or run aground.

Time is not kind to that way of life, and the victors of the war were in no hurry to aid the defeated. Many Human warriors hunted and killed Orcs as revenge for that latters wartime 'atrocities'. Others were killed purely out of fear and hate. If something as menacing as an Orc lived near by, that surely threatened the safety of a Human settlement. Better to get them first before they get us. 

Now, many years later, Orcs are largely extinct. The vast majority have been killed off, not just by Humans, but Elves, Dwarves, Wilders and their allies. Barely 500 Orcs remain on the world of Aerth. The vast majority of them dwell on an island off the Southern Coast on the Old World continent. They were moved there by members of the Order, who explained they were trying to protect the Orcs. While this was true, they were also trying to calm the locals. "Don't worry, the Orcs are not out to steal your land. No, Orcs aren't coming for your children in the night. They all live on an island far away. Don't worry, we'll be watching them."

Sometimes, when players ask why there are so few Orcs, I answer, "Because PCs killed them all and took their stuff."

The typical Aerth Orc is virtually identical to a Hobgoblin to the uneducated eye. They stand around 6 feet on the average, but can easily be as tall as 6 foot 6 inches, or as short as 5 feet. They resemble prehistoric Humans, but have large, slightly pointed ears, bestial noses, pronounced canines and an underbite. Their coloration varies widely, though it is usually a pale green-grey, blue-grey or blue-tan. Their eyes and brows resemble those of apes.

The Hobgoblin can be identified by a redder, often ruddier complexion, a paler face, and a black, or blue-black nose. Hobgoblins have longer ears that end in a more definitive point. Orcs stoop forward slightly, especially when they run, where as the stance of Hobgoblins is the same as Humans.

Hobgoblins are the more intelligent of the two, those Orcs can be quite clever, cunning and have a much better sense of their environment and the world around them. The senses of an Orc are somewhat more acute than a Hobgoblin's.

Mechanically (crunch time!), Orcs possess two abilities unique to their natures.

First, they have Adaption. This ability eliminates any penalties for movement or general actions in the environment their tribe comes from. A Orc of the Northern Forests moves at his normal speed through the snow and undergrowth of his homeland. Orcs of the South Eastern swamps are not hindered when fighting, or running, through bogs.

Their second ability is called Feral. This gives them a bonus on any perception check involving their heightened senses of hearing and smell. They can get a visual bonus, but only at night or in the dark.


So those are my Orcs.

Are they different? Meh. Not really. Are they interesting? I hope so.

Now my Dragons...

Barking Alien

*Orc - On Aerth, their are numerous types of Goblins. The people of different regions have given the Goblin 'Kinds' (see below) different names based on their different appearances, locations, the language of the people of the area, etc.

The Orc is really another name for the Hobgoblin, although they do differ as noted above. Hobgoblin tend to be better organized and actually build huts, small houses and will even take up residence in an abandoned Human house and maintain it to some degree. Orcs tend to live in or near woods, and will only live in the ruins of a building, dungeon, or similar construction. They do not build their own homes and can not fix, or maintain anything too complex.

**Kind - On Aerth, the term 'Kind' is sometimes used to describe subspecies on the same species, or species of genus. For example, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Bugbears, Bugaboos, Boggles, Buggle Nahs and Norkies are all 'Kinds' of Goblins.


  1. In Dungeon Crawl Classics, you are encouraged to make humanoids, un-dead, etc. different. Tables are provided for modifying humanoid appearance and culture. These are just a good starting point. No monsters should necessarily be instantly recognizable, and even when you do recognize them, you shouldn't necessarily know what they can do.

    In my home campaign, one of the characters has a goblin that obeys her, with red skin, hooves, and a taciturn manner. It especially loves dancing in the rain, and is enthusiastic about the subject. He can classify rain by speed, droplet size, and length of rain. She found it in her Yuletide stocking, courtesy of the Cinder Claws.

    Another character purchased a caterpillar at the Goblin Market. It likes to eat skin. Preferably her living skin. In exchange, it can power spells.

    The first goblins they met were short green humanoids herding geese. The gnolls they met in the same adventure (a modified U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh) were jackal-headed men who spoke in whispers.

    "Orc" is just a place to start.

  2. I like orcs in Tolkien's books. But they've become a lazy trope and are now simply boring. Other creatures I feel that way about -- to varying degrees -- are elves, dwarves, hobbits, vampires, zombies and Cthulhu (that last one made me really sad).

    Jason Sholtis' The Dungeon Dozen contains these two gems:

    Yeah, But THIS Troll ...
    Yeah, But THIS Vampire ...

    1. The Dungeon Dozen is a fantastic book.

      The interest in all monsters is in how they are presented and used. In James Raggi's Death Frost Doom, zombies become interesting again. (Likewise in Death Love Doom, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of NSFW fish.)

      I tried very hard to make elves interesting in Stars in the Darkness and The Revelation of Mulmo, two adventure modules I wrote for Dungeon Crawl Classics. These are definitely not JRRT's elves (although some references are thrown in as a form of twisted humour).

      In a very real way, games like D&D helped to "standardize" concepts of elves, dwarves, etc. Hobbits, are, of course, JRRT's invention, but there are also halflings in A. Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage.

      I haven't worked with making dwarves and halflings interesting yet. I did a "vampire" of sorts in Creeping Beauties of the Wood. I intend on having Cthulhu cultists in The Portsmouth Mermaid, and will do my best to make you interested in Cthulhu again.....Seeking the unexpected path, so to speak.

  3. Heh. Funny the kind of responses I get when I talk about something D&D related. A completely different group of commenters, and very different mindsets.

    My Elves are very interesting to my players because, quite simply, they created them. I had some basic concepts related to Irish and Scottish folklore, and inspirations from my love of English faerie stories over the years, but the first PC Elves helped define Elves. Same with Dwarves.

    In truth, I could easily make Elves, Gnolls, Dwarves, Orcs, and the like completely bizarre, richly textured and unusual, but than, it wouldn't be D&D would it? Much like my decision to still use Vancian magic in my D&D-But-Not game (even though I can't stand it), I try to at least pay homage to the troupes of D&D. My Elves are somewhat original, but they're still D&D Elves. The same holds true for many other elements.

    I don't recall the zombies in Death Frost Doom, largely because I hardly recall anything from Death Frost Doom. There was a hermit in it that was just like the one in Keep on the Borderlands. Right? Honestly, I don't remember. Found that 'adventure' really uninteresting.

  4. While, as you say, orcs are part of the D&D genre, I share many of your issues with them especially when I am a GM. Which is why I dropped orcs, and all of the other "evil" races, from my current campaign world (here is an ancient discussion there of: http://seaofstarsrpg.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/fantasy-races-rights-and-wrongs/ ).

    1. I read the post. Very interesting approach. I like it for many reasons. More than I could easily go into here I'm afraid (a future post perhaps? Perhaps).

      I will say that I've always been of the all or nothing mindset when it comes to Fantasy (and only Fantasy. Don't ask me why). If there are Elves and Dwarves, there must be Goblins, Trolls, Ogres and the like. If there are no Trolls, Ogres or Goblins, then there is only Man. Humanity. Ars Magica is a Humans only Fantasy game in example. Trolls and Goblins exist, but in the shadows between stories. They are no Player Characters.

      While I have no problem leaving out a fantastical species here or there, to me, there are many fantastical species, or there aren't any.

      I know, weird.

  5. It's funny, I drop off for a while and come back to find you posting about Orcs ... I thought this was a safe place ...

    I don't worry too much about making orcs special. The word carries certain expectations in a D&D game and I'm perfectly fine leaving those in place. In a non-D&D game I might go a little farther afield with them but that doesn't come up too often.

    That said I'm a fan of the old Rankin-Bass goblins and the old-school D&D pig-nosed orcs as well.

    If I need more details Warhammer orcs have fairly developed cultures - enough for most RPG sessions anyway, and if I want something different the 40K Orks biology as fungal life forms is Star Trek-ish enough (and typically unexpected enough) to make things interesting.