Customizing Common Races – Part 3: Tooth & Dagger Rationalizing Orcs

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0294

A Brief Word From Johnn

Happy New Year!

As reported in this e-zine in previous years, I’m a goal setter and like to theme each calendar year for my GMing. A theme lets me focus on improving one particular aspect of gameplay, and while I don’t neglect other areas, a theme gives me topics to consider and research as the weeks and months pass.

In 2006, consider what major area or category you’d like to improve at as a GM, and make a note of it. As you explore your theme during the year, you might:

  • Google it
  • Browse related sections in bookstores
  • Send in related topic requests for this e-zine
  • Ask your friends about it
  • Post messages about it at the GMMastery group
  • Do post-session analyses of it

My theme this year is story. I’d like to do a better job in my campaigns at crafting, telling, and revealing stories. What’s yours?

Tooth & Dagger

This week, we feature the final installment of Mike’s great race series, where he provides an example (orcs) of his tips and advice in action. I hope the examples help you with your own crafting, and that they might also be useful as-is for your fantasy campaigns.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Customizing Common Races – Part 3: Tooth & Dagger Rationalizing Orcs

NB: The language used in this text has been rephrased from orcish original statements to remove incidental foulness of tongue.

A Slice Of Orcish Myth

Long Ago, the gods looked down upon the world they had made and some said, “It’s a bit of a mess. If something’s not done, they’ll ruin the place forever,” to which others replied, “Don’t waste time on it now, leave it for the next class.” And so those gods graduated and went on to bigger and better things, leaving the mess they had made–all save a handful of troublemakers who were being held back for various reasons, and one other, the great and wise Gruumsh. And Gruumsh said to himself, “It would be a shame to see all that work go to waste. I shall make a race that can thrive on the filth that the rest leave behind, who can survive any trial their species encounters. Yes, I can see the way….”

It took many attempts to capture the true essence of what was needed. Many traits had to be enfolded into the one being, and there were many false starts. At first, Gruumsh thought that giving his creations unnatural long life was the best answer, but he soon discovered that these creatures grew too quick witted with long experience to be content with the life that was given them, and also arrogant and haughty. So Gruumsh abandoned the elves and started over.

In time, Gruumsh succeeded. A race lacking the size of the ogres, the inflexibility of the gnoll, or the ambition of the elves. They were larger than goblins but smaller than men, quick breeding, tenacious, and resilient–perfect for the world that was, and that was to come.

One night, as an exhausted Gruumsh lay sleeping, Corellon Too-Perfect-To-Be-Here, one of the mischief makers who resented being held back, said to his sycophants, “Let’s have some fun with Gruumshies’ pets, I dare you!” And so the orcs, the quintessential perfect survivors, were released with all of Gruumsh’s failed extra-credit assignments, to a world that did not need them yet.

A Piece Of Orcish History

The orcs were not welcomed as the saviors of the world that they were. Denigrated, treated as brutish and as a missing link that somehow encompassed both barbarism and decadence, they were mocked and tortured, and many were taken as slaves. And this they endured, and to this they adapted, drawing upon the gifts of their birthright in ways never envisaged by their creator.

They turned the abuse of the ungrateful men into a badge of honor, and learned to return it in kind when the opportunity arose. They learned the ways of the wild, and established great tribes in the lands that were too barren, too despoiled, or too polluted for others to endure. It was only for the elves, who perversely had taken to worshipping Corellon, that they felt true enmity. The “God” of the elves had sought to deny them the manifest destiny of their race, and there was much character in common between worshipped and worshippers.

When times were harsh, the orcs endured; when food was plentiful, they thrived. Thanks to the Gifts of Gruumsh, they adapted over time to reject the effects of most poisons and spells, and the wisdom of the greatest among them was conserved from generation to generation.

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A Fraction Of Orcish Myth: The Seven Gifts Of Gruumsh

The Gift of Acquired Immunity

Whenever an orc is exposed to some pathogen, pestilence, plague, or poison, and is harmed but not killed by it, he and all his progeny are forevermore of greater resistance to that agent (+1 to saves). Repeated exposure by subsequent generations permits this resistance to accumulate, becoming (in effect) a near-total immunity (accumulates to +10 bonus to saves). This immunity takes progressively longer, being twice as long for each new level of immunity after the first (+1 = 1st generation, +2 = 3rd generation, +4 = 7th generation). This ability is also conferred, to a lesser extent, to arcane trickery (up to a +5 resistance to spells).

The Gift of a Merciful Death

When life is constant suffering, a short life is a mercy. Overpopulation is a self-correcting problem, and the benefits of The First Gift of Gruumsh spread quickly throughout the orcish population as generations rise and fall. Those honored by the First Gift of Gruumsh often prosper in the face of an encounter whether they survive or pass on, and are looked upon as favored mates.

The Gift of Many Cubs

When life is short and the risk of death is high, fecundity is security. The number of cubs born of a single parent is directly proportional to the food that has been available to that mother since last she whelped. If food has been abundant, water fresh and plentiful, and dangers few, a litter of up to a dozen cubs is possible. If food and water has been scarce or foul, and if hardships and labours have been many, a litter of only two is common.

The Gift of Memory

It is sometimes said an orc never forgets. This is an overstatement, but it is true that part of what has been learned since the last whelping is passed on to the next generation. In this way, essential knowledge is conserved while new questions and new discoveries come naturally in times of plenty (half of the XP since an orc last mated is divided evenly amongst the next generation when the orc mates).

The Gift of Resilience

Orcs are survivors. It would be easier to stop the sun in its tracks by brute strength than to wipe out the last orc. But even beyond the traits that ensure the survival of the species, orcs are driven instinctively to do whatever is necessary for the race to survive.

If that means dividing a tribe when numbers become too great, learning to withstand the abuse of others in seeming good spirit, exacting revenge when opportunity presents, or breaking an agreement when it runs contrary to the needs of the orcish people, it will be done every time. This includes the need to mate regularly; an orc can avoid this need only by a diet of near-starvation, which makes them harsh and irritable at best.

The Gift of Diversity

The widespread nature of the orc and the reaction of the orcish peoples to the many different environments they face means that, within as little as two generations, two tribes that were formerly one might have diversified to the point of being completely distinct from each other. Thus, there is always a tribe equipped to survive any turn of events that may befall them. This is one of the few traits that was carried over from the elvish strain. (Another is the ability to crossbreed with humans. While an elf/orc crossbreed is theoretically possible, no one has ever survived its suggestion.) While this has not yet (to human knowledge) resulted in Aquatic Orcs, should the need arise….

This gift not only expresses itself in biological variety, but in sociological variety.

The Gift of Earthiness

Orcs tend to live in harmony with a despoiled nature. They are indifferent to committing such despoiling themselves, because they know that, at worst, their tribe becomes stronger and more secure by making the tribal lands less desirable to others. At the same time, such depredation is strictly localized to the immediate vicinity of the tribe; they do not commit wholesale atrocities upon the planet, such as those foreseen as the ultimate legacy of men by the gods. They are not constitutionally capable of maintaining any level of industrialized society.

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An Element Of Orcish Society

While no true generalization of orcish society can be made, most descendants of the oldest tribes still do things by the oldest ways.

There is a leader who generally wins his position by fighting off any and all rivals, either through personal strength, cunning, leadership (getting others to do the dirty work for him), wisdom, diplomatic prowess, or personal achievement.

Assisting the leader is a second rank of tribal counsellors. There are always at least two, and one of these is the shaman. Another is the keeper of memory, whose job is to maintain traditions, remember anniversaries and important dates, and so on. The shaman might also carry out this role, but it usually goes to the most skilled member of the tribal council.

The tribal counsellors, who are forbidden to refuse to give advice and are permitted to disagree (privately) with the edicts of the Chief, are the Little Chiefs. The Chief of Hunting, of Construction, of Woodcutting, of Shepherding, and so on. The role the Little Chiefs fulfill varies from tribe to tribe. In times of peace, it is not uncommon for tribes to exchange gifted apprentices to broaden their skill base. Most tribes specialize in one skill–they might be the best herders, train the best archers, or raise the most skilled trackers.

Beneath the Little Chiefs at the lowest rung of tribal power are those who are so prosperous or successful that they cannot be safely ignored. These usually include the mightiest warriors, the best hunters, or the wealthiest landowners. While they have no formal voice–they criticize the Chief at their own peril–they are nevertheless free to voice their opinions and have them taken into account by the Chief, which is something the average orc can only aspire to.

Orcs favour conditions they have encountered and survived in the past so as to train the younger generation in dealing with those situations. This is, at best, haphazard in application, but the more widespread the condition, the more likely it is to continue. Thus, orcs are harsh and cruel to each other, they wrestle or battle at the drop of a hat, and orcs always insult only each other and everyone else they meet. “Smartypants Magicmaker Elvor” is considered a formal mode of address towards Elvor the Wizard. “Smellynose Daggermouth Junetoo” is appropriate for the Diplomat June too.

It is felt that if the person addressed ignores the insult, then they have missed an opportunity for self-improvement; if they treat it as an insult, then the orc has weakened the position of the person addressed by distracting them. In either case, they have publicly acknowledged their perception of the biggest flaw in the character of the person so addressed so that others know exactly what is thought of them.

A Shaving Of Orcish Ritual

The most important day in an orc’s life comes when they are 32 seasons old, their Naming Day. Prior to this day, they have been given license, liberty, opportunity, and if necessary, a hearty shove into all aspects of tribal life. They have been fed, protected, and cared for by the entire tribe, indiscriminately. On the Naming Day, the cub discards the juvenile name given him by his parents and chooses a name for himself, as well as a second, secret name to be known only by the individual, the tribe shaman, and the gods.

He must then prove himself worthy of the name he has taken by undergoing a trial of survival. The nature of this trial is dictated by the Chief and could be something he thinks needs doing. “Go kill the dragon, Fumunculus, and don’t come back until you do.”  The equipment the former cub is permitted to take is also dictated by the Chief who could do anything from throwing open the tribal treasure chest to throwing the cub into the desert with only the hides on his back.

These trials never last less than 48 hours, and during their course, no orc is permitted to help the former cub in any way. When the former cub returns with proof of his success, he is accounted an adult, having learned much about himself,his strengths and weaknesses, and his desires. He is then permitted to formally petition to join one of the tribal professions. If the Little Chief of that group doesn’t want him, the orc is free to request a different assignment or leave in search of a tribe that will accept him in his chosen profession.

If he does not return, the tribe is considered better off without him.

(Note that while the male pronoun has been used throughout this section, the test is applied to all, regardless of gender.)

A Taste Of Orcish Politics

To call orcish politics robust is like describing the sky as blue. Any member of the tribe can challenge any decision of the Chief by attacking the person who made the decision. If the majority supports the Chief, they will protect him. If he has won his position by personal prowess, he can protect himself. If neither of these events occur, he is clearly of no further value to the tribe and the council of advisors will begin considering candidates for the soon-to-be-vacated position.

Tribal Chiefs gather irregularly in Moots to discuss anything that needs broader consideration. These are touchy affairs, with no tribe given precedence over another, though if the Chief of a large and prosperous tribe takes offence at the comments, actions, or attitudes of a weaker tribe, the result is obvious and inevitable.

Typically, half the time spent at such gatherings is taken up by reassessing the pecking order. The Chief who summoned the Moot is traditionally permitted to speak first and has the authority to dismiss the moot at any point. He is responsible for accommodating and feeding his “guests” at his expense. As such, it generally takes something significant to prompt a Chief to call a Moot; he is deliberately impoverishing his tribe by doing so. It is rare for Moots to take place more than twice in a Chief’s lifetime.

A Sense Of Orcish Honor

Although ruthlessly pragmatic in a petty and small-minded way, orcs nevertheless have a sense of honor and morality. Their priorities are simply different to those humans normally associate with the terms. Orcs will keep their word until they see good reason not to. Orcs will care for the weak and injured until they become a drain on the resources of the tribe. Orcs are generous until their generosity diminishes the wealth of the tribe without prospect for returns. In short, lying, cheating, betrayal, ruthlessness, mercilessness, and bribery are all perfectly honorable and moral provided they are in the tribe’s best interests.

This can, and often does, deceive observers from other races into believing that orcs have no sense of honor, and hence cannot be trusted, when in fact the opposite is true. There is no one more trustworthy than an orc who has been convinced that it is in his tribe’s or his race’s best interests to assist you. Whole villages will join in wars if that is what is called for.

However, if you ever break a promise to an orc, your promises will always be considered untrustworthy, your society will always be considered dubious, and your race will always be considered suspect—exactly as orcs perceive other tribes of orcs. Welcome to the family.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Races And The Animal Kingdom

From Michael Lee

I would like to add something to the Customizing Common Races article that appeared in recent issues. I think an important aspect of a race (and a great bit of flavor) is their relationship with the animal kingdom.

This can include their beliefs about an animal’s equality to themselves. Are animals lower beings, or are they equals? Are they revered? Which ones? Which animals, if any, are used domestically as mounts, workers, and pets?

Tied into all of these elements is the question of animal rights. Does the justice system provide any protection for animals wild or domestic? Is it common for people to bring their pets with them everywhere they go? Perhaps in a society where pets are an integral part of the family structure there are even merchants who cater to pets and related supplies.

Just some ideas that I think would lend a great deal of flavor and realism to any race. Thanks for the great issues and articles!

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Game Room Mobile Cart

From Telas

One of the best gaming purchases I ever made was a mobile stand/cart measuring about 20×30 inches, with a shelf and doors. The area behind the doors is the perfect height for D&D books.

My cart is similar to this, and it was on sale for well under $100 and worth every penny: Wood Mobile Machine Stand

Standard size D&D books and Tact-Tiles fit in the bottom space, behind the doors. Minis, dice, and random junk fit into the open space under the desktop. Minis are in Akro Mills’ clear plastic divided storage cases when possible. The top is for whatever is pertinent to the current session (books, minis, initiative cards, sodas, snacks).

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Online Image Database

From bardoi

I found a great online resource for pictures and graphics.

It has a variety of sections, including:

  • Arts and Literature
  • Cities & Buildings
  • Culture and Society
  • History & Geography
  • Industry & Technology
  • Nature & Science
  • Printing and Graphics

It also has a search engine to help you find what you are looking for.

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Another Forum Site Welcoming New Games & Gamers

From BarTndr has a section of its forums set up for game announcements and recruiting, as well as players seeking games.

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(Cheap) Projector Tip

From Elena of Valhalla

When using computers in the gaming room, a projector is surely a good improvement over a monitor, as big as it may be, but the price is still an obstacle for many groups.

This article shows how to create a projector with good resolution (1024×768 and above) for $300 or less using an old LCD monitor and an overhead projector:

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Hosting a PBP Game at the Red Dragon Inn

From Olan Suddeth

Love the newsletter. Thanks for the great article on hosting PBeM and PBP games.

I might have told you before, but for those who don’t have their own website, and would still like to host a PBP game – specifically, a PBP Dungeons and Dragons game, though most genres are welcome – we’d love to have them at the Red Dragon Inn:

It offers free registration, a simple setup, and a thriving community that loves newcomers.