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Thoughts on orcs


archer
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I feel like rambling, apologies in advance. I'll ramble until I'm tired of typing or my head is pounding too hard to continue then stop whether I've finished making a point or not. If I try doing it differently, I'll never get anything down.

 

Part One: In the Beginning, there was a Part and and it was single because it was too lazy to join a dating site so it became One.

 

 

"Orcs" don't have to be dumb, it's just that fantasy orcs have been done that way in the past so that writers and game designers didn't have to think up complex behaviors for them.

 

When I'm trying to come up with an "original" "orc", I try to think of the kinds of races which have been successful allies or opponents in other fiction then describe them in a few words to capture their essence. And sometimes add a few thoughts about how they might work in a fantasy setting.

 

For example drawing from Star Trek there could be...

 

Borg - creatures with magical cybernetic implants who seek to assimilate other magics

 

Klingons - warrior culture with questionable ethics

 

Romulans - smart sneaky bastards who steal everything which isn't nailed down

 

Andorians - four sexes, special sensory powers

 

Denobulans - affable, prone to large group marriages, promiscuous, needs very little sleep per year

 

Gorn - strong, territorial

 

Bolians - their crap really stinks

 

Breen - all of them wear masks so no one knows what they look like, could be anything. They take pains to retrieve their dead. And to track down and kill anyone who has seen one of them unmasked plus everyone they might have talked to

 

Bynar - they're born as twins and spend their lives together. Their connection is almost telepathic.

 

Cardassians - their regimented society is highly militaristic and expansionistic. They place a priority on training superior spies. High heat tolerance, low cold tolerance

 

Ferengi - embodies and idealizes avarice and deal-making, little capacity for long-term planning and will almost always sacrifice long-term advantage for short-term gains, hires only the best mercenaries...except for when they employ only the cheapest mercenaries.

 

Kzinti - race of male warriors with non-sentient females. Highly aggressive, easily offended, doesn't back down or apologize. Looks like large bipedal cats complete with life-sized deadly claws and a rat-like tail. 

 

Of course I normally wouldn't limit myself to only one franchise but you get the idea.

 

Notice I didn't talk about their physical descriptions (except for the Kziniti, and that was due to the need to help explain their built in HKA). There's no need for a physical description and it's counterproductive at this point....

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I always think of orcs as a cross between the Mongol horde (who were no dummies) and cave men (who generally were).  Not that they are idiots, but crude and savage, uncivilized.  I also see them as irredeemable; there are no good guy orcs because they are all horrible monsters.

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We owe orcs to Tolkien, of course, who designed them for his particular literary purposes and to fit his particular narrative constraints. Since then, as Archer says, gamers (or, let's be honest: D&D and its imitators) have generally treated orcs as The Bad Guy Horde It's Okay To Kill. In recent years there's been some small effort at developing back ground and culture to explain why orcs are a Horde Of Bad Guys, but the essential purpose remains. And to give them a somewhat different style than goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, and the other Bad Guys It's Okay To Kill.

 

The core explanation for why all these races are evil being that evil gods made them to be evil.

 

Tolkien was Roman Catholic and this shaped his worldbuilding and storytelling. (Though it was not his only source of themes or narrative goals.) I am told, by people who claim to know, that he was never entirely comfortable with orcs because, could orcs find redemption and salvation? Supposedly, he never landed on an answer, but the question bothered him.

 

If I'm wrong, any Tolkien scholars here is invited to chime in and correct me.

 

Anyway, I'm  a Secular Humanist, and that influences *my* worldbuilding and storytelling. I dislike the idea of an entire species whose sapience is so constrained that they *must* be evil for, well, no clearly defined reason. In my currently-on-hold-for-COVID D&D campaign, therefore, all the classic "evil" types have reasons for being threats to others. In particular, any creature bearing the "Humanoid" or "Giant" tag has moral freedom, or at least th4 potential for it. (Gnolls are extermally constrained, but that constraint could be removed.) Temperaments may make it difficult for them to get along with others, but temperament is not a species-wide, blanket compulsion. Like, troglodytes are not very bright and intensely xenophobic, but a very persuasive person might be able to befriend a particular troglodytes, or make a truce with an entire tribe.

 

In my setting, therefore, orcs have a high tolerance for violence and a low tolerance for laws and bureaucracy. An orc with a dispute would rather duke it out on the spot rather than sue. The Plenary Empire felt it had to conquer the orcs on its borders, and then on its new borders, and then had to re-conqueer them a few more times before the orcs got the idea. But they are now counted among the Five Peoples, and other folk make allowances, just as they make allowances for an elf's cooler-than-you haughtiness or the dwarf who insists on counting every copper to make sure she got correct change. Orcs have a reputation for blunt honesty (which, as no race is a monolith, some orcs exploit to their advantage).

 

Many orcs join the Imperial Legions. See the world, meet new people, kill them. What's not to love? And the chow is good! (Good compared to orcish cooking, anyway.). Qorship of the orcs' chief god Gruumsh has spread through the Legions to other folk.

 

And orc parties are epic.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Before actually reading the thread, my knee-jerk thought on orcs was "Blame Tolkien"

 

..now, having read it...

 

The Last time I thought deeply about orcs I was a teen designing my first D&D world.  I was up in arms over the anachronisms permeating the game and the sophomoric ways players would try to abuse middle-school-science-class-factoids to get 'creative' results out of spells &c.

 

So I quite sophomorically created a world that actually ran on unscientific beliefs.  It was flat, for a start.  Humors, miasma, Aristotelian physics....

 

So everything was made of the 4 classical elements in various combinations.  Humans were balanced, elves lacked fire, and dwarves air, for instance.

 

Getting to orcs, now:  in the grey/drow war vaguely alluded to in 1e AD&D, the drow took elven prisoners, alchemically infused them with an excess of fire and created the violent, fecund, short-lived race of orcs, and bred, trained, and acculturated them for use as expendable troops.  So, they were essentially evil, violent, destructive and rapacious, as a matter of essence, their elemental make-up and accursed origin.

(It came out in the course of the 10-year campaign that followed that the grey elves had done the same thing, treating captured drow with balanced infusions of fire to create their own warrior-race, humans.)

 

 

 

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I guess if you want to put it in terms of psychology, Orcs have always seemed to me to be creatures driven by their id and ego, and they don’t seem to have much (if any) superego holding them back. They do what they want, when they want and are only really constrained by something bigger and stronger than them. They like food, fighting and sex. They’re basically a race of violent sociopaths.

 

if someone doesn’t have a conscience urging them to do better, you end up with a monster of some sort or another. Orcs are that sort of monster.

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In Hero Games' Turakian Age setting, there's a kingdom of "civilized" Orcs, called Thordar. It's the creation of a charismatic Orcish leader named Lurmosh, whose time as an adventurer traveling the world made him believe his people could be much more than they were. Through diplomacy and force he united the Orcs of his region and led them to new lands, teaching them new ways to live. After many centuries the Thordarans are little different from the Men in other kingdoms, in their society and habits. They fish, herd, farm, build and dwell in cities, and are renowned as shipwrights and mariners, peacefully trading with many lands.

 

They are, however, very much the exception in the world of Ambrethel, which is what makes them so distinctive. As Steve Long expresses it on TA p. 39, "The residents of Thordar prove Orcs can overcome their barbaric natures if they want to... but few of them wish to."

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Orcs... a fantasy staple race now popularized almost anywhere.

 

I ran a game (past tense) where I decided that it made no sense for orcs to be so brutal, warlike, aggressive, unintelligent. A society of people like that simply would collapse without workers, farmers, or craftsmen.

 

So I created a world where orcs were a true society. There were three varieties: urban, savage, and nomadic. The urban orcs were like any other civilization: intelligent, organized, specialized in their tasks (traders, farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, leaders, artists, philosophers, witches, shamans, etc.) The savage orcs were like the orcs we know today: brutal, tribal, aggressive, somewhat isolated, highly prolific, and relatively primitive. The nomadic orcs were a bit of both: civilized, intelligent, organized, but cunning and somewhat militaristic, raised with a philosophy of domination, and to some extent, xenophobia. But they did get along reasonably well with others, despite their xenophobia. You could talk to them.

 

And within each subgroup you could find individuals who fell right into the stereotype and those would be far from the norm. Anything was possible.

 

So, you could meet all types of orcs, and you had to decide how you personally would want to react to one orc or another, not because they weren't orcs anymore, but because you now had a choice. It no longer was "black & white".

 

I liked the idea and it threw up a lot of interesting situations, like when the party was joined by a nomadic orc warrior detachment who encountered undead with the party. The orcs thought this was not acceptable and offered to join the PCs to destroy a common enemy. Not your typical orc interaction, but it was great for the story and the roleplay. Unfortunately I also had one player who could not tolerate the idea that orcs were not the "evil, ugly brutes" that he knew and loved to hate, so he almost immediately quit the game. To each their own, I say.

 

So, then I decided that it was actually orcs who had been here longer than humans. They had an ancient civilization with magical and mechanical wonders that were lost thousand of years ago due to some cataclysm. But the remains of their cities and fortresses were scattered throughout the lands like pockets of buried treasure, ripe for the looting by clever thieves and research by enterprising mages. If they could get past the prodigious magical and mechanically animated guardians. It made for an interesting contrast to see how low orcs had fallen in recent centuries when compared to their ancient predecessors, and it gave the orcs historical significance and a past they could be proud of.

 

It made for a very different game where players actually had to truly consider the orcs, and in some places, admire them, instead of just hating them by default.

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7 hours ago, DShomshak said:

We owe orcs to Tolkien, of course, who designed them for his particular literary purposes and to fit his particular narrative constraints. Since then, as Archer says, gamers (or, let's be honest: D&D and its imitators) have generally treated orcs as The Bad Guy Horde It's Okay To Kill. In recent years there's been some small effort at developing back ground and culture to explain why orcs are a Horde Of Bad Guys, but the essential purpose remains. And to give them a somewhat different style than goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, and the other Bad Guys It's Okay To Kill.

 

The core explanation for why all these races are evil being that evil gods made them to be evil.

 

Tolkien was Roman Catholic and this shaped his worldbuilding and storytelling. (Though it was not his only source of themes or narrative goals.) I am told, by people who claim to know, that he was never entirely comfortable with orcs because, could orcs find redemption and salvation? Supposedly, he never landed on an answer, but the question bothered him.

 

If I'm wrong, any Tolkien scholars here is invited to chime in and correct me.

 

Anyway, I'm  a Secular Humanist, and that influences *my* worldbuilding and storytelling. I dislike the idea of an entire species whose sapience is so constrained that they *must* be evil for, well, no clearly defined reason. In my currently-on-hold-for-COVID D&D campaign, therefore, all the classic "evil" types have reasons for being threats to others. In particular, any creature bearing the "Humanoid" or "Giant" tag has moral freedom, or at least th4 potential for it. (Gnolls are extermally constrained, but that constraint could be removed.) Temperaments may make it difficult for them to get along with others, but temperament is not a species-wide, blanket compulsion. Like, troglodytes are not very bright and intensely xenophobic, but a very persuasive person might be able to befriend a particular troglodytes, or make a truce with an entire tribe.

 

In my setting, therefore, orcs have a high tolerance for violence and a low tolerance for laws and bureaucracy. An orc with a dispute would rather duke it out on the spot rather than sue. The Plenary Empire felt it had to conquer the orcs on its borders, and then on its new borders, and then had to re-conqueer them a few more times before the orcs got the idea. But they are now counted among the Five Peoples, and other folk make allowances, just as they make allowances for an elf's cooler-than-you haughtiness or the dwarf who insists on counting every copper to make sure she got correct change. Orcs have a reputation for blunt honesty (which, as no race is a monolith, some orcs exploit to their advantage).

 

Many orcs join the Imperial Legions. See the world, meet new people, kill them. What's not to love? And the chow is good! (Good compared to orcish cooking, anyway.). Qorship of the orcs' chief god Gruumsh has spread through the Legions to other folk.

 

And orc parties are epic.

 

Dean Shomshak

So you’re saying that there is no such thing as good and evil then at least as what Tolkien referred to? If your believe Man determines morals then it’s subjective. And if it’s subjective, then it really isn’t moral is it? 

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To put a supernatural twist on it, salvation requires a soul to be saved, otherwise what are we talking about?

 

In Tolkien’s works, Melkor created Orcs by perverting Elves (and maybe Men) to create a servant race for himself since he could not make such a thing from scratch. I’m not a Tolkien scholar, but, as I recall, Dwarves were also not a creation meant to be either. Even so, they were accepted by the Creator when the Dwarves’ patron asked for his blessing on them. Melkor didn’t do that for Orcs. They were part of his whole rebellion thing.

 

Orcs exist as perverse mockeries of the races that were supposed to be part of creation. They’re beings rejected by God, so they wouldn’t have a soul, I would guess, just some kind of withered spirit that animates them. With no part of the Creator’s light and goodness in them, I can’t see a Tolkien Orc ever wanting salvation. They simply go about their miserable existences eking out whatever small enjoyments they can by looting and plundering.

 

When they die, I think Tolkien described their end as their spirits simply snuffing out like a candle. They don’t go to the halls of the dead or whatever Tolkien called the afterlife. There is no heaven for them, nor hell, just an ending.

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10 hours ago, Christopher R Taylor said:

I always think of orcs as a cross between the Mongol horde (who were no dummies) and cave men (who generally were).  Not that they are idiots, but crude and savage, uncivilized.  I also see them as irredeemable; there are no good guy orcs because they are all horrible monsters.

 

8 hours ago, DShomshak said:

We owe orcs to Tolkien, of course, who designed them for his particular literary purposes and to fit his particular narrative constraints. Since then, as Archer says, gamers (or, let's be honest: D&D and its imitators) have generally treated orcs as The Bad Guy Horde It's Okay To Kill. In recent years there's been some small effort at developing back ground and culture to explain why orcs are a Horde Of Bad Guys, but the essential purpose remains. And to give them a somewhat different style than goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, and the other Bad Guys It's Okay To Kill.

 

The core explanation for why all these races are evil being that evil gods made them to be evil.

 

I agree with Christopher R Taylor and the first paragraph of DShomshak's post and completely disagreeing with the "core explanation" sentence. 

 

Not to be antagonistic, but because it is expending far too much effort for something that is ridiculously simple.

 

RPG's have players taking on persona's that then kill and pillage.  The game is supposed to be fun and it generally is.

Orc's, Goblins and such exist in an RPG for many of the same reasons they exist in fantasy books such as LotR's.  They are zero dilemma enemies that may be freely killed/destroyed without morale quandary.  They are not "people".  They are evil (or any other fill in the blank reason) enemies of the players.

 

In my games they are not available for players.  In fact most "evil" concept beings are not.  In D&D 5th Half Orcs and Teiflings and Warlocks and the other munchkin evil based race/class types are not either.  People are free to play what they want and if that want is not in alignment with the type of games I run or play, then more power to them.  I just don't participate. 

 

The whole redeemed evil whats'it makes a good book or show where the author/directer literally controls every word and expression by literally everyone.  But in RPG's it basically degenerates into munchkin murder-hobo, which is usually fiercely denied by the murder-hobo's.   I'm not saying that murder-hobo is not a legitimate way to play a RPG.  I am saying that I do not like them or participate in them.

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5 hours ago, Ninja-Bear said:

So you’re saying that there is no such thing as good and evil then at least as what Tolkien referred to?

Well, I am not drawing upon Roman Catholic theology.

 

 

5 hours ago, Ninja-Bear said:

If your believe Man determines morals then it’s subjective. And if it’s subjective, then it really isn’t moral is it? 

Mmm... No. Since I don't think I can explain further without delivering a long, boring philosophy seminar. I shall simply acknowledge that much depends on definition of terms. I suspect we do not define our terms the same way.

 

There is certainly villainy in my campaign, that needs heroes to fight it. There is no supernatural force causing it or defining it.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Oddly enough, this article crossed my feed. This describes an alternate theory about Neanderthals that makes a case for them being the ancient evil of legend, and the author makes a compelling case. It also neatly explains the “Evil Race” problem, in that they predated on Homo Sapiens. 
https://treeofwoe.substack.com/p/when-orcs-were-real

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8 hours ago, Scott Ruggels said:

Oddly enough, this article crossed my feed. This describes an alternate theory about Neanderthals that makes a case for them being the ancient evil of legend, and the author makes a compelling case. It also neatly explains the “Evil Race” problem, in that they predated on Homo Sapiens. 
https://treeofwoe.substack.com/p/when-orcs-were-real

 

OTOH there's a lot of evidence and expertise that calls that theory into question: https://blog.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/2010/10/killer-neandertals-does-this-o/

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I'd swear I read this Orcs = Neandertals notion in an early issue of DRAGON, but I can't nail down which issue. A quick online searh, however, found this playful discussion of how sexual selection might lead to orcs' physical traits and how this could be a clue to their evolutionary past:

 

  • Taken to Tusk: The Sociobiology of Orcs : DnD

    www.reddit.com/r/DnD/comments/bxxgu3/taken_to...

    I hope this is at least interesting. I've been thinking on this for a while, and orcs just sound to me like advanced neanderthals. As such, for my game I tend to throw out a lot of the "canon" lore. I boost their INT scores (for 5e) to 12, but drop their CHA to 7 and their WIS to 8.Y'all might find it amusing.

    The DRAGON article went further, though, in trying to map other early hominids onto D&D humanoids such as ogres and goblins.

    Dean Shomshak

     

    EDIT: Nope, I misremembered. The article was in DRAGON #44, and while it suggested connections between a few D&D races and a few prehistoric hominids, Neandertals were simply the "Cavemen" from the Monster Manual. Here's a link to the issue in pdf; it's part of a section with other articles on half-orcs and Fantasy genetics.

    agazine #44 - A/N/N/A/R/C/H/I/V/E

    www.annarchive.com/files/Drmg044.pdf

     

    Dean Shomshak

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The notion of humanoids deliberately bred for certain physical and mental qualities, like dogs or horses, is a well-established trope of both fantasy and science fiction. In a fantasy milieu featuring magic the alterations can be as radical as with advanced genetic engineering. With that origin it's perfectly reasonable for whatever your analogue to "orcs" is to be inherently aggressive and violent, cruel and ruthless (lacking empathy), or however you wish to describe "evil." However, for such creatures to form more than packs of brigands ruled by the strongest there would have to be some sort of social structure, hierarchy, code of behavior, links of community, and the like that are commonly accepted, either a cultural tradition or imposed by some greater authority.

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Whether it's Jung, von Däniken, or some blogger asking "why does every civilization have similar myths?" the boring, non-racist answer is probably just "human nature."  We're all humans, we have a whole lot in common, a lot of our vaunted differences are just made up.

 

Orcs, specifically, just at a glance, do seem to represent something in humans that humans instinctively hate & fear:  masculinity.   They're bigger, more muscular, more aggressive and violent, they take or destroy rather than nurture or create, they're hypersexual, prone to criminality, and inveterate rapists... and they're ugly & stupid.  As negative stereotypes go, it's kinda on the nose, really.

 

In contrast, BTW, elves are gracile, agile, intelligent, beautiful, creative, live in harmony with nature and wield magic.  You could say there's a mystique to them.

 

I guess we could say "Orcs are from Mars, Elves are from Venus."

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1 hour ago, Lord Liaden said:

Or looked at from a different philosophical perspective, they're yin and yang as races.

Were they interdependent, somehow (in Tolkien, as already mentioned, orcs are made from elves is the closest I can think of to an example), instead of absolutely antagonistic like they are in D&D, sure.  Though the consequent association of orcs with light & sun and elves with darkness wouldn't map too well.

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Well, remember that in European folklore, elves/faeries range from perilous to near-demonic malevolence. You call them the Good Folk, or some similar euphemism, to avoid their malice. Mortals might come out well from an encounter if they keep their best manners and follow the rules, but the rules are often obscure and might be different each time. Or their beauty might conceal implacable evil -- "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

 

If one tries mapping myths onto gender politics, then, elves might represent masculine fears about women, and orcs as feminine fears about men. But I find such approaches dubious. Myth and folklore are so broad and diverse that any attempt to impose a grand theory of explanation is laughable. The Destroyer Brute and the Perilous Fair One are widespread tropes, but they are far outnumbered by entities that fit in neither class.

 

Dean Shomshak

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On 6/30/2021 at 2:25 PM, Lord Liaden said:

 

OTOH there's a lot of evidence and expertise that calls that theory into question: https://blog.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/2010/10/killer-neandertals-does-this-o/

Oh quite true, but it does make for a truly frightening and implacable adversary for a fantasy game, especially if they thing you are physically weak and tasty. I probably will retool my threat from the Eastern  mountains to something more like this. 

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As noted above, in Tolkien, Melkor and his creatures were unable to create life. Orcs are perversions of men and orcs, and therefore, in principle, are capable of salvation. Just as the Dark Powers can't create a soul, presumably they can't destroy one. However, it is implicit in Tolkien's writing that no mortal being can resist temptation forever. Without the Light and the One, mortal beings cannot prevail. Orcs were lost a long time ago, and their bodies and minds burn in the presence of things that are holy or forged with good magic, but you could, seemingly, try to redeem a single orc. But for all Gandalf's talk of mercy, Tolkien's world seems to accept the necessity of war and valor against evil, and so the heroes don't waste any more time trying to redeem an orc than they would a Haradrim or Numenorean (two human ethnicities of Middle-earth), or for that matter, more than an elf would waste time redeeming a dwarf that represented any kind of threat to them. But in principle, at least... Gollum, who was a thrall to the Ring for a long, long time, could still feel sympathy and conflict, despite having long been corrupted by the darkness. Orcs, in Tolkien, simply don't know any kindness, so what has been done to their bodies, minds, and souls would be difficult to heal.

 

In early D&D worlds, orcs were creations of their patron immortals and deities. Their nature reflects their creation. Nonetheless, they are intelligent creatures and can, in principle, be reasoned with and even redeemed. That's probably not going to happen in a typical storyline, but there is still room for the pathetic or tragic orc that earns the mercy of the party, and maybe even some kind of friendship. It's also worth noting that in virtually all D&D worlds, orcs are rarely purebred, and all the traits that can be found in trolls, humans, goblins, and the like, can be found in orcs, even apart from their nature as intelligent humanoid beings.

 

In Palladium, orcs are simply a species of intelligent beings. More brutal and less intelligent than humans, on average, they nonetheless possess all the variation and potentiality of any civilized being. An orc could be a soldier, a thief, a baker, an innkeeper. Someone might dislike orcs because of a given population's behavior, or because they don't like something about orc temperament, but orcs aren't "evil" in Palladium in any metaphysical or psychological sense, although many orcs, especially mercenaries and brigands, might individually be evil.

 

Yrth (the GURPS fantasy world) has orcs similar to Palladium ones. Given that they are essentially a brutish subhuman race, this raises, on one hand, questions about the morality of slaying orcs, and on the other hand, implications in play about that touch on real-world history and prejudices about foreigners. They are a convenient guiltless foe, but on reflection, it's not clear if an enlightened view of orcs would really permit such prejudice. Again, orcs are tougher, more brutal and generally less intelligent than humans, but individual orcs exhibit the same diversity of characteristics as humans. A genius orc is still smarter than an average human. The backstory of Yrth highlights some of this ambiguity, as the world in its current form basically exists because the elves tried to commit genocide against the orcs, back before humans, goblins, and the rest arrived on Yrth through a magical accident.

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