Much love for half-orcs…

“But these creatures of Isengard, these half-orcs and goblin-men that the foul craft of Saruman has bred, they will not quail at the sun…'”— from The Two Towers III 7, Helm’s Deep

As far as I can tell, this line from Lord of the Rings, and a few other oblique references here and there, are the source of the “half-orc” character race in Dungeons and Dragons. They did not appear as an “official” character race until the “1st edition” AD&D Player’s Handbook. The 1st ed. AD&D Monster Manual does, I believe, mention the fecundity of orcs and their ability to cross-breed with various races including humans, and the Dungeon Masters Guide has the classic description of half-orcs in 1st ed. AD&D:

“Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger.”

Of course the DMG goes on to explain that half-orc player characters need not conform to all these stereotypes, and it is explained at length there and in the Player’s Handbook that half-orc characters would be the superior 10% or so of half-orcs that can almost “pass” for human and that can restrain some or all of their orcish impulses. Player character half-orcs might be despised and shunned by most normal folk, but their outsider status makes them perfect adventurers. Most of my half-orc PCs were a mix of anti-hero and hero. Think of the Paul Newman character in Hombre, but with a little more of the Eli Wallach “Tuco” character in the Good, the bad & the ugly. Some were more heroic, following the rather classic archetype of the reject who tries to make good…

It is probably worth noting that in the original D&D “3 little brown books,” orcs are described as Neutral or Chaotic, but by the time AD&D was released the alignment system grew more complicated and orcs are described as Lawful Evil. In any event 1st edition AD&D half-orcs were thuggish but not necessarily stupid; they had racial maximums on most attributes that left them inferior to humans & the other races on most counts, although they STR and CON bonuses were a nice consolation!  They had fairly harsh restrictions as clerics (maximum of 4th level), but could get to 10th level as fighters and were unlimited as assassins. Interestingly, while most nonhumans were unlimited as thieves, half-orcs were limited in their advancement. So really assassin was the preferred class for a half-orc (or perhaps fighter, as they could reach the level title “Lord”). Half-orcs had the best assassin multiclassing options, too (fighter/assassin is pretty tough, and cleric/assassin is pretty good despite the level limit as clerics). When Barbarians were introduced in Unearthed Arcana, half-orcs were not eligible to be barbarians (or any other new class, come to think of it, although Gary Gygax did allow half-orcs to be Hunters when he introduced that class in a magazine a bit later. Thus, half-orcs appeared to be best suited to be spies and thugs (assassins and assassin/fighters) and in my forays into AD&D, I pretty much always played half-orcs as fighters, fighter/thieves, fighter/assassins, or more rarely as cleric/fighters. The third character I ever played in AD&D, and the only one I recall advancing beyond 4th or 5th level, was Swidthef, a fighter/assassin who got to 8th/8th level (for reasons I can’t really recall anymore, the last time I recopied the character I dropped the fighter class and shifted all the XPs to assassin so he retired as a 9th level assassin, and I think I may have juggled his attributes a bit, because he started off with an 18/exceptional strength and retired with a 16…back in those days we played D&D very fast and loose and changed characters fairly freely. I remember my brother’s halfling fighter/thief some how ended up as a high level human fighter! For some reason we insisted on keeping the “same” character in terms of names and XP totals even if we decided to change everything else…)

In the above line-up of the races from the 1st ed. AD&D Player’s Handbook, half-orcs look a little primitive but basically human (Boris Karloff with a pug nose, I’d say).  Here are a couple more 1st ed. half-orcs:

Second edition AD&D got rid of half-orcs (and the assassin class, which half-orcs excelled at), ostensibly because the idea they were the product of rape was just too offensive for a mass audience, and evil characters should be discouraged (assassins in AD&D had to be evil, although in the original D&D supplement Blackmoor that introduced the class, they had to be Neutral rather than Lawful or Chaotic…). Although I disliked many other things about 2nd edition, it was the removal of half-orcs from the “core” rules more than anything else that soured me on it. All through high school and college, unless I played in my brother’s campaigns (who had a similar fondness for half-orcs), playing a half-orc meant “bending” the rules, or using optional rules many DMs didn’t allow. Instead I tended to play other systems, like Rolemaster, GURPS, and so on.

When the 3rd edition of D&D was released, I was initially pleased to see half-orcs return to the core rules, but they were hardly recognizable as the AD&D race.

Orc or half-orc?

Strong and brutish, they resembled nothing so much as the “half-ogre” race Gary Gygax suggested in an old Dragon magazine article: stupid, strong, and stupid. 3rd edition half-orcs were really only suited to being barbarians, or perhaps fighters. The rogue class, which was much closer the old AD&D assassin than it is to the thief class, was not really a viable option for a half-orc because the 3rd edition half-orc was penalized on intelligence and so would have terrible skills. Some house-ruling for a Warhammer campaign in 3.5 edition (rogue as favored class, mainly) allowed me to make a reasonably old-school half-orc character (also named Swidthef), but I was still a little dismayed to see the sudden popularity of the race among newer D&D players. They were playing AD&D half-ogres, and calling them half-orcs! This rubbed me the wrong way for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate…who cares how someone else plays a game? But in the days of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, I was pretty much the only player I knew who even played half-orcs, because of their many drawbacks, and I took a sort of pride in playing an obviously underdog character. The popularizing of half-orcs (no doubt fueled by the cartoonish orcs of Warcraft and Warhammer) seemed to strip them of the things that made them cool back in the day… they were hated, despised even, much like gunslingers in the Old West, but also could prove themselves invaluable, as many of my half-orcs would do in the games I played in. Also, 3rd edition half-orcs could never be the cold, ruthless spies & killers of 1st edition; they were just dumb barbarian Berserkers. (Although the AD&D barbarian was never a very well thought-out class, the 3rd ed. barbarian was just a cartoonish berserker). A somewhat “tragic,” misunderstood and angry anti-hero type became a stupid cartoon.

When 4th edition D&D came along, I really wanted to like it. The emphasis on giving all classes a “role” appealed to me (even though that role was only combat-oriented). One thing I disliked in 3rd edition was the breakdown of defined roles for characters, as any PC could multi-class into whatever they wanted, and really feats and skills trumped class abilities for the most part. 4th edition also reimagined the half-orc a bit, and made them viable rogues, so much so that I named my 4th edition half-orc “Big Swifty” after the 1st edition character I’d played (and also after Big Swifty & Associates, a Frank Zappa reference no one in my gaming group picked up on). I was particularly glad to see half-orcs depicted less like full-blooded orcs as they are in the 3rd ed. books and much more human. Here were half-orcs that could actually be interesting again. If 4th edition had only been a better game….

I can’t complain too much about 4th edition D&D half-orcs, although they certainly show some 3rd edition influence, with racial abilities more suited to berserking than anything else. The bonus to Dexterity makes them excellent rogues, and all the art I’ve seen so far makes me think half-orcs in D&D are finally returning a bit to their roots.
Now I’m in a Castles & Crusades game, and while I’m playing a human illusionist, it is refreshing to see half-orcs following the 1st edition archetype again. Should something awful befall my illusionist, I’ll just have to try one more half-orc assassin.

A rambling post but something that has been on my mind and perfect for musing on a day off work… More later, no doubt.

Update — apparently one of the first Dragon magazines had a set of random character generation tables and among the possible races were half-orc and half-goblin, so that would be the very first instance of half-orcs in D&D.

My brother, who is actually better-read regarding Tolkien than I am (and boy does it hurt to admit that) holds that in Tolkien, “half-orc” just means Uruk-hai, and the Uruk-hai were actually hybrids of men and orcs. I’m thinking half-orcs worked for Sauruman and uruk-hai worked for Sauron but maybe they were the same thing. Which, ironically, makes 3e half-orcs a bit more reasonable. Then again the Iron Crown Enterprises Middle Earth Roleplaying game distinguished between half-orcs and uruk-hai, and that was an incredibly well-researched adaptation. I’ll have to see if Gygax ever explained how he came up with half-orcs. I know they also appeared in the Arduin Grimoire (a supplement to D&D that was published by a third party and before AD&D) but I’ll have to check the chronology on that — maybe they just appeared in the later revision of Arduin.

Published in: on November 19, 2009 at 3:05 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So I’ve come poking around your blog. Love the miniatures. I’m not a gamer but I used to collect skaven… Anyhow, I wonder if you know Scott Oden? He’s another Orc fan and long-time D&D player, but also I think he’s done a fair amount of research on the introduction and adaptation of Orcs in D&D. He was on a quest a while back to pinpoint when Orcs were first given pig attributes and who is responsible.

    “in Tolkien, “half-orc” just means Uruk-hai, and the Uruk-hai were actually hybrids of men and orcs.”
    –> There are so many arguments about what the deal is with these guys. It gets more complicated because “Uruk” was originally just the Orkish word for “Orc,” and sometimes it’s hard to know how Orcs themselves are using it. Also in his posthumously published writings Tolkien seems to say that there are actually two kinds of half-Orc: “both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.” So were the large and cunning Men-orcs the same as the Uruk-hai? Or were the Uruk-hai a separate group altogether?

  2. So Orc-men vs. Man-orcs — I never heard about that; is that from letters/essays or stories? Whatever it means it seems like a great idea to expand on w/r to RPGs. Either one is still miles away from the 3rd/4th ed. D&D half-orc.

    It gets pretty hairy separating JRRT’s use of terms because his characters may not being using them according to a strict definition, particularly with the orcs. In The hobbit, mention is made of goblins and hobgoblins, which I assume would be the closest approximation of the word for orcs in Hobbitish. Then there is “snaga” which has been largely understood to mean “lesser” orcs in some sense, but are they really smaller or just lower in the hierarchy? The word is explained as “slave” in one of JRRT’s glossaries, and to muddy the waters I’ve seen some interpretations that “Snaga” is the proper name of the particular orc scout, and in other places an explanation that it is a whole sub-race. Also the half-trolls mentioned (somewhere) in Return of the King are a situation similar to half-orcs, in my mind (were the troll-men or half-trolls just a character’s impression of tall Variags, or of Olog-hai?) Were Olog-hai a crossbeed or just “improved” trolls? I think the origins of both Uruk-hai and Olog-hai could be the same, but JRRT never really says, at least in the trilogy, what that is. And in Black Speech the words just mean “orc-race” and “troll-race.” So are human characters calling the new orc-race half-orcs because the don’t know what else to call them, or are they referring to a third entity? My head hurts.

    Re Scott Oden, I actually found references to your orc bibliography project via his web site, and his site via a Dragonsfoot discussion of orcs… I’ll have to check out his historical ficiton some time, and the swords & sorcery Lion of Cairo when it comes out. By the way, is there a direct link to your bibliography? I have trouble navigating your “LiveJournal” web site. I’ll link to it here if you don’t mind.

  3. Alas, my bibliography is not online yet: that junk in lj is just my notes. I can send you what I have, though, if there is a particular place you would like me to send it.

  4. D’oh – you asked me a question:

    “both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile”

    This is from one of his posthumously published materials: an essay called “Myths Transformed” in the book Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle-earth vol. 10). I don’t have the book in front of me but stole the quoted wording from Wikipedia (heh).

    • Thanks for the source! The more I think about it, the more I think JRRT must have had two different types in mind, although I doubt any half-orcs of Middle Earth are literally crossbreeds. Anyway I’d love to see the orcish bibliography you’re working on. my email address is my first and last name as they appear in the url of the blog, with a period between them, at yahoo etc. (That looks really paranoid but why make it any easier on the spambots…)
      Anyway thanks for the input!

  5. I am a huge fan of the race and have started a thread for Dungeons & Dragons Online.

    I find the creative evolution of the breed to be interesting, but I beleive the sneaky, crafty Half-Orcs should be promoted as well.

    • Wow, Ed, that’s a lot of posts.

      I see you are still looking for the orc deities from the old Dragon Magazine article (and also in Best of Dragon III). They were “official” for Greyhawk, I think. A list is here:

      You’ll want to check out Dragon #62. That has the 1/2 orc point of view and the gods of the orcs articles, later reprinted (with different illustrations, I think) in Best of Dragon volume III.

  6. I’ve read everything in this page guys but still don’t know the following things:

    There are half-orcs (or something like that) in the world of Tolkien that their appearance is more human than orcish?

    What about the DnD half-orcs? Only in the 1st ed the 10% of half-orcs appeared like humans and the rest were more like orcs in features?
    What about the 3rd ed? This half-orc seems to be more like an orc and seems to be the only option for PCs. So that means that half-orcs in 3rd ed are all like orcs?

    Btw Attek the knife was in a novel in waterdeep (undermountain) and that guy was a half-orc but his features were very very close to human. The novel i think was back at the 2nd ed times.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      1) Tolkien is kind of oblique about this. Aragorn and Theoden seem to think that the Uruk-hai were orcs cross-bred with men (I think Treebeard makes a similar guess). My sense is that Tolkien’s half-orcs ranged from very orc-like (just standing more upright and resistant to sunlight) to the very human-like (spies mentioned later in the book, and in the Shire under ‘Sharkey’)

      2) 1e PC half-orcs can pass themselves off as human. The other 90% of half-orcs are presumably more orclike in appearance and outlook and since orcs are pretty variable in appearance anyway, they basically count as orcs. The AD&D illustrations above more or less confirm that. The greenish
      action figure is 1e but also an NPC/bad guy.

      3) 3rd ed. half-orcs, going by the illustrations, look like orcs in the face, but more with human-like postures and hair. They could not possibly pass for human, but are not quite as bestial-looking as orcs. They are encouraged to be barbarians. Sounds like an orc to me…which is why I mourn the AD&D version of half-orcs, which were more interesting.

      I’ve never read the Forgotten Realms novels (I assume Waterdeep is one of them) but maybe i’ll check that one out, thanks for the tip.

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