We need to talk about Half-Orcs.

This is a different kind of post with some thoughts I’ve struggled with trying to make historical fiction / fantasy  game settings. It deals with a difficult and sensitive topic, so, if this isn’t your thing then scroll along.

There’s something that’s been bothering me recently…

Where do Half-Orcs come from?

The AD&D Manual published in 1978 by Gygax himself describes the playable race thusly:

Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels are sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human.

We will just let that paragraph hang out there back in 1978 and move along. The 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, published by Wizards of the Coast in 2014, has this to say about half orcs:

Orc and human tribes sometimes form alliances, […] When these alliances are sealed by marriages, half-orcs are born.

That all sounds nice and convenient if we just ignore all of human history forever.* It is certainly possible that a romantic pairing could develop between “savage raiders and pillages” and the human settlements they war with, but this would be rare, rarer than what has happened throughout history and continues today, when tribes, countries and cultures go to war.

Half-Orcs result from sexual assault.

This never came to mind until I read this Pathfinder Player’s Guide from Curse of the Crimson Throne (by James Jacobs & Mike McArtor).

Many [Humans] live in close proximity to the orcs of Belkzen, resulting in an almost constant state of battle between the two groups. These battles sometimes grow exceedingly personal, resulting in the occasional half-orc. Few of these half-orcs survive to adulthood, and fewer still live among their human cousins…

Here we have a kind of polite acknowledgement of rape as a tool of warfare and oppression, with a hint as to how this can inform a character’s background. When I had to describe the existence of Half-Orcs in my own players guide I wrote the following and threw up my hands in despair:

The edges of the empire have continually clashed against orc territory and this violence begets a small population of half-orcs…

We play fantasy RPGs with the understanding that the pain and drudgery of medieval life (lice, gum disease, the smell) is grayed-out so we can focus on the adventure. In our games we gleefully butcher tribes of goblins and we don’t care if Guard #3 had a family back home. Murder has been gamified and we’ve all agreed that it’s okay. Rape has been erased, but it lingers in the background.

Dysentery and scurvy have been cured in our modern world. Rape is still an epidemic. In the last few years I have become uncomfortable with how we sanitize human history in our history and mythology, especially when this sanitation engages the same blind spots we employ in the modern world, where very real violence happens every day.

The distillation of History into Game is not a basic equation and this process is driven by underpaid nerds looking to create games that people will have fun playing, bless their hearts. Do designers have a responsibility to grapple with painful and fraught social issues? How would that even be handled given the format?

I don’t have any answers and I’m curious who else is grappling with this topic, but If we care about telling meaningful stories, we cannot ignore the ugliness that has followed us out of our barbaric past and continues to cause harm today.

*The institution of arranged marriage is also highly problematic.


One thought on “We need to talk about Half-Orcs.

  1. I think 13th Age’s handling of half orcs, while setting specific, is probably my favorite way of handling it simply because it doesn’t imply sexual assault: being born half-orc is just a thing that happens.

    “The name half-orc is misleading. There are cases of orcs and humans mating, but most such intercourse is barren or lethal. The common origin story for half-orcs is that they are a supernatural response to the existence of orcs. Orc breakouts appear as magically generated infections. Half-orc births are a slower response, apparently encouraged by the High Druid in the wildlands to strengthen human tribes.”


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