Fables of the Borderlands
Half-Orcs Article: Dragon #62 by Roger Moore
Half-orcs, as everyone knows, are what you get when you cross orcs and humans. They are not uncommon in the world of the AD&D™ game, and they do not enjoy good reputations among most populations.
One well-known authority describes most half-orcs as “rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious.”
Why do half-orcs seem to turn out this way? What makes them tick?
To better understand half-orcs, one needs to understand the non-human aspect of their nature. Orcs are probably the most common sort of humanoid creatures. They vary widely in physical appearance, but generally seem to retain a vaguely human look, tinged with a hint of something… else.
In nearly all orcish societies, the social philosophy is the same. Orcs are the ultimate social Darwinists; only the strong and the clever survive, and the strongest and cleverest orcs are the ones who manage to reach the upper social levels of their cultures: Orcs have no respect for those weaker than themselves, and are quick to step-and-fetch for those stronger than they.
They distrust all overtures of friendship and love, seeing these as a cover for other, baser intentions; if they discover feelings of friendship to be quite genuine, they immediately attempt to manipulate events to take the best advantage of them and gain the upper hand.
Orcs are like this because of the influence of their deities (discussed in the companion article to this one) and because of their own past. Sages have uncovered much evidence showing that They’re rude and crude, and so’s their point of view.
Orcs developed in regions generally hostile to life; survival was difficult, and only if a group worked closely together could it hope to collect enough food to get even a part of its numbers through the year. While the group would have to work together to collect food, distributing it was another matter. The strongest orcs got the most food, and the weakest ones got none at all. (They were probably going to die anyway, right?)
The very toughest orcs managed to receive more than just the bare minimum of nourishment, enough to make life more comfortable for them and give them a certain degree of personal security. This also gave them the chance to explore more intellectual occupations than food-gathering, like figuring out how to get more food and living space.
The easiest opportunity to be realized was to take food and/or living space away from other folks, and these other folks were usually other orcs. Intertribal competition became fierce, and over the centuries many of these conflicts have "evolved” into what seem to be eternal states of war between various tribes.
Orcs are nocturnal by nature. They prefer to catch prey when it is asleep and less able to escape. Orcs have done this for so long they’ve developed infravision, the ability to see living objects in darkness by their body heat. The development of infravision was assisted by the orcish habit of living in caves for protection.
Orcs tend to live in wilderness areas where the sky is heavily overcast and direct sunlight is non-existent or rare at best. In magical universes such regions are frequently found, their twilight perpetually maintained by the forces of magic cast by mortal or godling. In these places orcs will be much more active than is customary in the daytime, even to the point of conducting raids and hunting, but it is at night when orcs really become dangerous.
Though such lives of hard work and danger have made most orcs rather strong and tough constitutionally, the race has a short lifespan. A 40-year-old orc has reached the virtual end of its natural life; the average orc lives for 12 to 26 years.
YOUTH AND FEMALES
As might be expected, orcs have a very high rate of reproduction, but their infant mortality rate is quite high, too. Barely one orcish child in three will see adulthood, and fewer still will see old age. None of this is any surprise to non-orcs who have made even the briefest study of the race. But what shocks the casual observer is the degree of acceptance, even preference, orcs express for this situation.
“How could we feed so many hungry little mouths?” retorted one orc prisoner to a curious paladin.
“If you have lots of brats and some of them die, so what? They were the weakest… the strongest ones will live and work for you, make you proud of their strength. Who wants weak sons? Your enemies will kill you in your sleep if they see you are protected by weaklings.”
As can be inferred from the above comments, orcs prefer male children. Though females are born only slightly less often than males, much fewer of the females survive to adulthood. Other demi-human races with sexual imbalances have that property because of natural reasons; orcs (and certain other humanoids as well), however, are more likely to practice selective infanticide, or otherwise forcibly adjust the ratio of males to females.
The emphasis in orcish society is on fighting ability to gain status and well-being; since they have less muscle than males, females generally lose out. Orcs believe that the only value female orcs have is in bearing children (as many as possible) and keeping the cave clean.
Orcish religion is interesting, too, because of the great extent to which the orcs’ way of life mirrors the tenets of the religion they follow. By and large, orcs do not well appreciate the consequences of their actions beyond the immediate present (a byproduct of their low wisdom). What they do, they do for the here and now, occasionally with some (but not much) consideration for the future. This is probably due to the necessities of their harsh life; one does not have time to think of the future when one must worry about just getting through today. For orcs. however, this reasoning applies even when times are comparatively good and food is plentiful. They continue to worry primarily about now, not later.
This attitude is reinforced in their religious ceremonies; no mention is made of the future beyond the statement, oft repeated, that orcs shall rule the world… someday.
It is interesting to note that Gruumsh, the major orcish deity, is one-eyed; this means he has a narrow field of vision and no depth perception at all. The many tales about Gruumsh reveal that, indeed, he too appears prone to act first and think about it later. When he meets another godling who appears to fail to notice him, or to give him proper respect, he doesn’t ask why; he attacks. When Gruumsh’s moronic (and two eyed) son Bahgtru stubs his toe on a huge rock, Gruumsh curses the rock and tries to wrestle it. After breaking it into small pieces with Bahgtru’s help, he proclaims a victory over the forces of nature. Never mind that he and Bahgtru had their feet cut by rock fragments, or that they are so tired from breaking the rock that they have trouble later fighting giants. The point had to be made, then and there.
While Gruumsh will usually act with some forethought and planning, his rage is easily ignited, and it inevitably clouds his judgment. With only one eye, he has but one view of the world: his own. Orcish shamans and half-orc clerics imitate Gruumsh by plucking out one of their eyes, hoping to gain Gruumsh’s perspective.
Half-Orcs in Orc Cultures
With a background like this, it is hardly surprising that half-orcs are as they are. Produced under questionable circumstances at best, half-orcs will usually retain some properties of both species, human and orc, wherever they are raised. Those brought up in orcish society (the male ones, at least) will be immersed in the previously described orcish social philosophy. Though orcs have some degree of dislike for “half-humans” among them, they are also aware that such beings generally possess more adaptability and cunning than a full orc, and have the potential to be stronger than the average orc.
Unless rivalry between the half-orc and his peers ends his life at an early age, the half-orc will usually achieve a quite respectable position of power and influence in his tribe. Aware that he is not a full orc, the half-orc will probably feel much superior to orcs and assume added arrogance and pride—thus successfully mixing the worst of human qualities with the “best” of the orcish. These sorts of leaders are exceptionally dangerous, possessing enough foresight and intelligence to lead their tribes on much more widespread raiding, banditry, and warmaking than is usual for orc bands.
Life is not all rosy for this type of leader, of course; rivalries, jealousies, and intrigues will probably continue within the tribe against him unless he
becomes powerful enough to command immediate obedience at the risk of swift destruction. A few cases are known of half-orc females rising to positions of power within a tribe; usually this female is either a warrior disguised as a male (who must flee or die if her deception is discovered), or a cleric for one of the few orcish religions that permit female shamans or clerics. In no known cases have female half-orcs become as widely feared or powerful (personally or politically) as male half-orcs, though this is not through any fault of their own. Orcish sexual prejudice is deep and strong.
Half-Orcs In Human Cultures
Half-orcs raised in human society, usually without the orcish parent present, have a greater likelihood of adopting a variety of non-orcish attitudes and lifestyles, but even then will have some less savory aspects to their nature as well. The average human has a dislike for orcs and anything with orcish ancestry; half-orcs will find themselves the objects of prejudice in most human communities. Many half-orcs react to the local expectations of them in predictable ways
(incidentally reinforcing those expectations). In other words, treat a half-orc as if it were dangerous and bad, and it will probably become dangerous and bad if it wasn’t already. Yet there have been examples of neutral-aligned halforcs and even a few of good nature; most of these retain an unnatural (to many humans) affinity for lawfulness and obedience, but are otherwise acceptable company. Half-orcs raised in a human community are very unlikely to be able to
speak orcish unless they have had formal study in it.
Half-orcs have a variety of careers open to them, in whatever society they inhabit. Obviously, and most commonly, they make good fighters; orcish tradition strongly emphasizes personal combat and physical strength. Half-orcs are fairly good at thieving and banditry, but suffer from relatively poor physical coordination and have some difficulty in applying themselves constantly to improving their skills. Half-orc thieves generally steal for the same reasons as anyone else does, but tend to feel that they are especially justified in what they do by one of their laws of survival: he who cannot hold onto what he has, does not deserve it. They regard their actions as necessary for their own existence, stealing because they have to, not just because they want to.
The assassin’s skills, by contrast, come most readily to the half-orc. By virtue of their casual regard for the lives of others, even of their own kind, the art of killing has a certain appeal to those with orcish blood. Half-orc assassins often come to believe their actions are for the benefit of the world in general; they are culling out the unfit in the most direct way possible, which brings out another of the orcish laws of survival: if something can be easily killed, it did not deserve to live. Who can resist the urge to be the one who wields the scythe, who decides the fates of others, who has the power of almighty death in his hands? With their preference for a retinue of underling , half-orc assassins can create powerful guilds to support them, and may end up spreading their influence into many a court or government.
Half-orcs who become clerics will usually combine their clerical practices with another career, most commonly as a fighter or assassin. This is because half-orcs cannot advance very far in experience as clerics, and they will eventually require another set of skills to keep them on even terms with increasingly tougher adversaries. Half-orc cleric/assassin types are invariably death-worshipers, and strive to put themselves in better favor with their awful gods by personally bringing death to as many beings as possible, within their religion and outside it.
Orc Perspectives of Other Peoples
Orcs and half-orcs generally dislike and avoid beings larger than themselves, unless (as in the case of ogres) the orcs feel they can manipulate them sufficiently, with promises of shared treasure and food, to make them useful to the orcish community as guards and/or heavy infantry.
Orcs and half-orcs dislike smaller humanoids because they are inevitably weaker, and these races are usually employed only as slaves. Goblins, who are only marginally weaker than orcs and can hold their own against them at least some of the time, are afforded more tolerance than other small humanoids. But it is not other humanoids that orcs hate worst of all — it is other orcish tribes. The roots of hatred run deep between conflicting tribes; the original cause of friction, if there was one, has long since been lost to antiquity. Intertribal conflicts are maintained by religious bigotries; each tribe worships a particular orcish patron god with interests that (naturally!) conflict with those of other deities. Even so, all tribes usually pay some homage to Gruumsh, the king of the orcish gods.
Another question concerning orcish and half-orcish personality should be addressed: Why do orcs hate elves so much? Superficial examination of the question reveals little overt cause; orcs and elves do not frequently compete for the same living space or for the same foods. But a slightly deeper examination shows that in terms of personality, probably no two races could be further apart.
For example: Elves are able to see many sides of a problem; orcs see but one. Elves carefully examine the long-range consequences of an action, usually before undertaking it, while orcs could care less for anything but the present. Elves are very long-lived, while orcs have one of the shortest lifespans among the humanoid races.
That list could be longer, contrasting many other aspects of the races’ lifestyles, but a point has been developed. Orcs and elves are opposites in nearly every way, and orcs resent the advantages elves have, especially their long lifespan. While elves do not particularly like orcs, they think of them as a short-term problem not worthy of prolonged consideration.
Orcs, on the other hand, are consumed with hatred for elves, and will slay them out of hand whenever the opportunity presents itself. Orcish mythology has several tales of battles between elven and orcish deities.
The most famous one occurs between Gruumsh and Corellon Larethian, the chief elven deity. The story goes like this, according to the orcs:
Gruumsh ambushes Corellon in hopes of slaying him and drinking his blood, so as to inherit his special powers; Gruumsh fails, of course, through his own shortsightedness, and Corellon shoots an arrow at Gruumsh’s eye. Though the arrow failed to blind Gruumsh, apparently it was not intended to. Elven stories of the same event (much briefer than the tedious orcish versions)say that Corellon meant the arrow as a warning to Gruumsh of his vulnerability —a hint that it would only take the loss of his eye to break Gruumsh’s power as a god, and that some being might be capable of bringing this about if he were not more careful. Though Gruumsh rails and curses the elven gods through many later stories, he never again tries to directly assault them, and spends his fury on mortal elves instead. Obviously, he took the hint.
In summary, half-orcs are often bound to take on some of the less desirable characteristics of their orcish parents, especially if they are raised in an orc tribe.
Half-orcs are generally tough, respectful of power, and seek to have power themselves. They tend to measure one another by the number and quality of their followers, and they work within a group setting rather than on their own.
Like orcs, half-orcs often act before thinking about the results of their deeds, and appear somewhat stupid to other more foresighted individuals because of this. They dislike the weak, follow the strong, and quarrel with their equals. Again, this is not true of all half-orcs. But at least a vestige of these characteristics is present in nearly every one, regardless of their individual makeup.
Information for this article was taken
from the AD&D rule books, the Players
Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the
Dungeon Masters Guide, as well as the
DEITIES & DEMIGODS™ Cyclopedia.
Some additional comments and insights
were found in Master of Middle-Earth, by
Paul H. Kocher. Though this latter book
concerns the world of J. R. R. Tolkien,
much of the information therein is quite
usable in an AD&D setting, and the work
is highly recommended to the serious
student of role-playing.
-Roger Moore, Dragon Magazine #62