How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs

In real life, we all sometimes feel bound by caution and frustrated by rules of decorum, so we enjoy characters who act recklessly, play by their own rules, and boast the power to ignore the consequences. This accounts for some of the appeal of gangster films and of evil D&D characters.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978) introduced half-orc characters. They stemmed from evil and seemed suited to it.

Those first edition rules limited a half-orc’s top level in every class but assassin, so only half-orc assassins saw much play. Author Gary Gygax surely figured that evil half-orcs would have a knack for assassination, but the combination lacked much appeal. Orcs bring strength and battle lust, not cunning and methodical planning. Assassins fueled conflict between players, and the role concerned some parents, so second edition dropped the class. (See Why Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons Dropped Thieves and Assassins.)

At first, D&D pictured orcs with pig faces and described them as evil bullies willing to “breed with anything” and eager to capture human slaves. This led many  people to conclude that half-orcs came from rape.

The half-orc’s history in the game suggests that the D&D team shied from featuring a playable race that implies a dark background of sexual violence. As designers wrestled with the half-orc’s backstory, the race came with the first and third editions of the Player’s Handbook, and left with the second and fourth editions of the book.

Many players enjoy mighty, reckless characters who thrive on melee. They relish the chance to ignore caution, rush into action, and destroy foes. No race supports the style half as well as the half-orc, so the option kept reentering the game. Especially when third edition’s Player’s Handbook combined the berserker archetype into the barbarian class, half-orcs gained popularity.

Most of D&D’s editions offer goliaths to players interested in big, mauling fighters, but almost everyone favors half-orcs. Goliaths, a sort of diluted half giant, come so low on flavor that few players can pick one from a lineup.

Through D&D’s editions, the designers worked to free half-orcs from their worst implications.

In second edition’s Planescape setting, the half-orc leader of the Bleaker faction comes from a loving marriage between a human and an orc. The pair came to Sigil seeking tolerance. The setting’s authors felt that a human-monster romance needed some explanation, so in the tradition of Alicia Masters, they made the human parent blind.

Half-orcs can be explained without the implication of rape. The race came from Tolkien and his half-orcs stemmed from interbreeding between orcs and unsavory humans allied with Sauron or Saruman. Third edition steered in a similar direction. “In the wild frontiers, tribes of human and orc barbarians live in uneasy balance, fighting in times of war, and trading in times of peace.” Trading, indeed. Face it, orcs don’t really need to be less evil or monstrous for some humans to willingly interbreed with them. Evidence supports the notion that humans can be outrageously indiscriminate about who or what they couple with.

Still, rather than explaining half-orcs as the product of human-orc interbreeding, fourth edition made them a completely separate race. As backstory, the Player’s Handbook 2 offers a menu of mythic explanations to choose from. For example, perhaps a part of the god Gruumsh’s savage essence fell to earth and transformed a tribe of humans into a new species. Like many ideas floated in fourth edition, half-orcs didn’t remain a species.

Fifth edition frees half-orcs from their darkest implications by developing the nature of orcs. Their evil and savagery stems from their devotion to Gruumsh and the rest of their gods. Orcs follow a faith that preaches blood and conquest, backed by actual gods able to give followers divine powers. No wonder orcs behave so badly.

Outside of Gruumsh’s influence, orcs can escape savagery. “Most orcs have been indoctrinated into a life of destruction and slaughter. But unlike creatures who by their very nature are evil, such as gnolls, it’s possible that an orc, if raised outside its culture, could develop a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion.” Perhaps the son of a human and a loving orc could even grow into a factol in Sigil.

Although fifth edition makes half-orcs the product of interbreeding, the game makes the mix common enough for form self-sustaining communities. “In lands far from the Sword Coast, such as Thesk and Chessenta, there are large communities of half-orcs, where generations of them have lived as a people in their own right.”

The story behind D&D improves by making orcish savagery a product of violent gods. In the early days of D&D, orcs only differed from other humanoids by resembling pigs rather than hyenas or big goblins. Now, orcs stand out for their spiritual devotion, and this backstory makes orcs more layered and interesting. Allowing orcs a capacity for love and compassion helps solve the question of what could lead a human to pair with an orc. Plus, the story answers whether good adventurers can murder baby orcs with a clear conscious. I always hated the baby orc dilemma.

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75 Responses to How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs

  1. rasmusnord01 says:

    One of the current PCs in my campaign decided he was one brother in an experiment to create soldiers – not unlike the Warbreed that Matt Colville has made half-orcs in his campaign (although not directly inspired from it). I think that is a pretty cool solution, and avoids the sexual violence (not that it was the purpose). In nature, few species can interbreed with offspring that also can have offspring. That brings new questions, like, if humans and orcs can interbreed, can halflings and humans, or orc and elves? And what happens then?

    • Grey says:

      I wanna say there was some errata that suggested most of the humanoid PC races could theoretically interbreed… and possibly with some magic intervention, not automatically kill the mother in the birthing process. I know a few Homebrew rulings that explicitly allowed for such, but usually carried the caveat that it’s largely for flavor and roleplay, as the player would effect choose one parent race or the other to build their stats off of.

      besides, wasn’t having a ridiculous string of illegitimate half-race offspring all across the lands one of the primary reasons anyone ever played a bard? 😁

    • Golden One says:

      Okay, how are these Races to begin with? Orcs, Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Lizardfolk would all have to be the same MAIN SPECIES for each of these to be a Race. They are Species! Wood Elf, High Elf, Gray Elf, those are Races.

      Secondly, no significant deviation in species allow those species to breed and produce viable offspring. Perhaps having magic involved would allow it, but in general, an Elf should not be able to create offspring with a Human, a Human with an Orc, a Gnome with a Dwarf.

      I have played D&D (AD&D) since 1979. We didn’t assume a Half-Orc was the result of a raped human, or a Half-Elf was an elf raped by a human. We weren’t being politically correct, it was simply assumed the procreation was consensual. In a fantasy world where a sentient species other than Humans exists, it is not a significant leap of logic that those species (if capable of interspecial breeding) would have coupled.

      And while the Orc species, in general, was Lawful Evil – and the Elf species was Chaotic Good; there was nothing to prevent the Half-Orc from being Good or Neutral, just as Elves and Half-Elves could be Neutral and Evil.

      Eventually, taking the creation myths of each Species into account, we removed Half-anythings; as no Elven diety would allow their children to be robbed of their near immortality and grace by breeding with a “lesser” species; just as Gruumsh would not allow his powerful and domineering children to be tamed and weakened by breeding with a “lesser” species.

      • Biology Nerd says:

        Actually, in some cases hybrids retain the ability to have children, though the probability of that decreases the more distantly related the parent’s species are.

        For example, many modern humans have some Neanderthal ancestry, and some have Denisovan ancestry as well – both of which are separate species. Similarly, the Savannah cat is a cross between domestic cats and servals.

        Now, it’s entirely possible that the early Neanderthal X modern human hybrids had some fertility issues, but clearly enough of them were able to have children of their own to leave a lasting impact.

        Savannah cats on the other hand are known for having fertility issues, which makes them more difficult to breed. But some first gen hybrids are still fertile, which is why you see Savannah cats with less than 50% serval blood.

      • Britt says:

        You sound like you’re fun at parties

      • Joon says:

        Then what about the fact that lions and tigers can interbreed? What about the fact that homosapiens and neanderthals interbred? You’re not really giving this as much thought as you think you are. They could easily be subspecies or divergent species.

        Secondly, no one assumes a half-elf was the product of rape because humans and elves werent considered an evil species like orcs clearly were, and orcs were considered to be repulsive monsters.

    • Helweek says:

      It’s bothered me for years that halfgnomes half-halfling-gnomes, half-dwarves, …etc…etc arnt a thing in dnd. What about also, wouldn’t half-elves and half-orcs have a natural kinship both Being social outcasts how about a half/halforcelf.

    • Search google for “Dwelf” but keep some bleach in reach just in case you need to wash your eyes

  2. Dante says:

    Good lord, what a bunch of rubbish this post is. No, there are no “troubling implications” of half-orcs. What a load of politically correct bollocks. Unsubscribing from this blog immediately.

    • Voldran says:

      Oh my god! Really? He has an opinion that disagrees and you go for insulting his sex life. Grow up. I happen to agree with him on this. There is no actual facts supporting this article aside from parents having a problem with thieves and assassins being in the 1st edition of the game. But because he called it out and leaves voluntarily (providing feedback to the author as to why), you think it’s perfectly fine to call him an involuntary celibate. You’re an ass and need to learn manners.

    • The Nameless Bard says:

      I think the main problem is the implication that a RACE is born naturally evil and barbaric. Not culture, but by DNA alone they are less moral. That is a glaring issue that must be corrected.

    • Maridia says:

      Hhhholy shit I didn’t know “rape is bad” is such a controversial topic.
      I know quite a few attractive women who play d&d.

    • Geekoid says:

      It was narrow minded, not pc. Which is just another way to say ‘civil’,;btw.

    • Potter Dee says:

      Good, no one needs you here anyways.

    • Josh Tanner says:

      Spot on, my good man!

  3. Wil cifer says:

    This is BS . Rape was a common place occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based off of is stupid. Why would a human breed with an org that looks like a goblin at best, pig at worst. Then its rape vs bestiality…ok you are chaotic with a low wisdom score this might make sense

    • KnightSirDangleO says:

      “Rape was common in history therefore rape should be common in a role playing game”

      Lmfao shut the fuck up with your asinine outrage

      • Indrayat says:

        Shut the fuck up, DangleO.

        Troubling implications are what made Greyhawk and early DnD interesting.
        Real life has a ton of troubling stuff in it.

        DnD is many things, Disney it ain’t.

    • David Streever says:

      You know what actually makes no sense? That orcs and humans can produce viable offspring, or that orcs would keep human mothers and the offspring alive if they were raped slaves.

      It’s a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.

      • Patrick says:

        The number of people using half-understood chunks of human history to justify making rape and sexual assault a prominent part of fantasy worldbuilding, much less the worldbuilding of the most popular ttrpg out there…some of these dudes have some serious issues to work through.

    • Voldran says:

      Exactly. The Medieval Era was brutal. It was not kind nor cuddly. Wars, rape and racism happened all the time. This author seems to want DnD as utopia rather than verisimilitude. Rarely would a human would want to breed with an orc or goblinoid.

      • Jasom says:

        TFW people believe D&D is historically accurate.

        The designers didn’t like the implication of sexual assault, so they dropped it. But ultimately it’s your game to do what you want. In your case, if you want to explore your rape fantasies of fairies and orcs in some dark room with your friends, have at it.

      • Jaime says:

        The Medieval Era also didn’t have dragons or wizards, but hey, if rape and racism are the bullshit “historical accuracy” lines you want to draw, then go on.

    • noneuklid says:

      Most of the D&D settings aren’t medieval, or feudal at all; they have castles but also complex economies and frequent travel. And also magic. Nor is a halfhearted attempt at historicalism a justification for including war crimes. That’s some dark shit, and most of us don’t want it in the default publications.

      • rasmusnord01 says:

        Exactly. You can put whatever you want in your own game. D&D is – obviously – not a history simulation. But why anyone would advocate to put it in the core game, which is played by 8-year olds, is simply beyond me??

    • We’re dragons and magic commonplace in medieval times

  4. DS Phelps says:

    Enjoyed this. Had no idea it was a thing people wondered about, but it’s interesting to hear how the changes evolved in each edition. Sure, in general I can see someone wouldn’t want to play a character that’s the product of a rape… kind of no fun.

    • skiamakhos says:

      It would give the character a reason to go travelling – either they’re getting away from an abusive situation where people are raped by orcs, or maybe they’re trying to track down their rapist parent & kill them. Potential for story-arc, at least.

  5. Seth says:

    The real conundrum is thst half orcs are alliwed, half elves are allowed…. so half elven halforcs is this a thing.

  6. In one campaign, we have a half-elf who is brother to a half-orc … Brothers of the same mother. Leads to interesting roleplay.

    • aaron2449 says:

      Campaign I’m running right now have half elf twins, a half orc, and a human, all siblings, trying to track down there father.

      • Randall Baumgardt says:

        I always thought that would be a great basis for an adventure party. I hope it works out. Sounds like fun and great role playing.

  7. Elbareth says:

    I can see merit in your opinion but I think we will have to agree to disagree over orcs and half orcs I’m afraid. I do see and think of orcs as similar to knolls in the view that they are evil. I like 5th edition quite a bit (2nd is still king imo) especially Vengeance Paladins. I have always viewed DnD worlds as somewhat dark brutal places with some small parts of hope and justice(the Warhammer fantasy Old World is my favorite setting so that would show my leanings I suppose, and I tend to play high elves and dwarves (dwarfs for the old world)) so in games I have run and been a part of orcs were an enemy to be destroyed. Now your world is yours and I wouldn’t presume to tell someone else how there world is supposed to be, but even in 5th orcs and half-orcs are always tied to their roots from old school lores.

    • Elbareth says:

      *damn I messed up my last sentence: even in my 5th ed games orcs and half-orcs are always tied to their roots from old school lores. Also I dont mean to say all half orcs are evil but for my games all full orcs are.

  8. qkzap says:

    I have been a DM for going on 30+ years and this is what I know and believe. It’s a game. The players and DM decide how their world works. If you want it PC fine do that. If you want it dark and chaotic fine do that. Many of my campaigns have a dark element (Rape, slaves, deaths, prostitutes, weird experiments, taxes, etc). This is not because I get off on it, it is to provide a setting my friends and I like to fight against. It provides good story lines and great villains.

    I heard a good line that fits, “The Rules are just a suggestion.”

  9. Pb Scoops says:

    I think od&d is “racist,” and I mean it in a good way. There were good races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc) vs evil races (goblins, orcs, kobolds). Unless you believe that there is a correlation between fantasy races and particular human ethnicities, this shouldn’t be a problem.

    As to the idea that a fantasy hybrid race is largely made by rape, again I see roleplaying opportunity…think Olivia Benson from law and order SVU…she’s a child of rape and is a great avenger against rape.

    Moreover, as other commenters have observed, a DM is quite capable of creating their own spin on race origins to accommodate their players

  10. bblackmoor says:

    Wow. So many repugnant people commenting here. Personally, I think “half” races are dumb, but I’d rather mate with an orc than play with the kind of cretin who uses words like “cuck”, and who considers interspecies rape just an everyday thing that ought to be in a RPG.

  11. Geekoid says:

    That’s the most narrow minded view of halforcs I’ve read in my 42 years of playing.

  12. Kyle Maxwell says:

    The number of people complaining about “historical accuracy” about a fantasy race is too damn high.

    This is why I like all-human settings, FWIW, because I’d really rather not deal with racial essentialism in my gaming.

  13. Andrew says:

    I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh of the nine hells. This explains why they are lawful evil. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me.The treatment the Drow have received is even worse in this respect. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape. Why is that a problem?

  14. Later editions of D&D got dumbed down and PC. 🙄

  15. bblackmoor says:

    By the way, DM David, you might want to consider turning off comments on your blog, or at least moderating them. Malicious buffoons have a way of drowning out reasonable people with their repulsive comments, if you allow it.

  16. Andrew says:

    I see zero no equivalence between Muslims and Orcs. At least in my world, orcs aren’t just followers of a specific faith. They are the living flesh and blood embodiment of their creator. It’s pure fantasy and bares no resemblance to lived reality. If orcs represent anything, they and other monsters are allegorical representations for all of our worst instincts.

    Islam is a faith in upheaval, with several radical and hyper fundamentalist elements who have hijacked the larger religion. The way I see it, we’re only in the opening stages of Islam’s wars of reformation right now.

    Christianity’s wars of reformation were very bloody with numerous instances where it spilled over into other civilizations. And there were lots and lots of radical Christian factions during this period. And the final war of that was rooted in the wars of reformation ended in the 1990’s with peace finally being brought to Ireland.\

    What’s happening with Islam right now is very messy, very complex with several forces working against one another.

    The two orcs and Islam bear no resemblance to one another.

    • Andrew says:

      This was a reply to a post and has since been deleted, so it doesn’t make much sense. Sorry

    • Dusty Deal says:

      Wow. A reasonable, well articulated response regarding Islam & Christianity. You give me some hope that there are still thinking humans on the internet! (And I agree on all counts)

  17. John C says:

    Um, sorry but where did you get this nonsense? In the first and second editions (and presumably forward though I have not read those) Dragonlance campaign half elves are commonly the product of rape. A famous case in point is the hero Tanis Half-Elven who in both the many novels as well as campaign modular adventures is the product of a rape of an elven woman by a human man. The woman died in childbirth and left the mixed breed child with her proper upper class Elven family who looked down on him and mistreated him. It was that catalyst that formed the basic nature of the character, it is discussed quite openly and in detail.

  18. Jeffery D Vogan says:

    Half orcs are fantasy versions of Klingons

  19. No mention of Eberron, the 3.5E setting? Half-orcs were an orchish offshoot race that could breed true, or be produced by orc-human pairings. The orcs of the setting are a nature-oriented people, and introduced druidism to the current humanoid cultures of the continent. They’re no more inherently savage than any other race — every race and culture in Eberron is capable of both incredible beneficence or vile malice.

  20. Arturo Guzman Cofresi says:

    Sheesh. Way to take the grit out of something. Orcs are evil. A half-orc that is not is overcoming such adversity is more interesting and layered character.

    Goblins are evil. So are many other species. Why? Because the source material from where the mythos stems is Tolkien and the folklore where he took the stories and inspiration.

    A fantasy genera does not need to reflect real life nor have to deal with current politiks. Players are in most rules not allowed to play orcs or goblins, for a reason.

    As for the interbreeding, yes there are half elves, many bred in horrible ways. There are half human half dwarves, called Muls in Dark Sun. Thing is humans are able to breed with many other species. Why? Versatility or whatever.

    People with twisted heads asume that half orcs come out of forced breeding. A player is the one that decides whatever reason or way the character was born. So if I say a tribe of humans chose to mix with a tribe of orcs to survive and they ended interbreeding what is that to anyone else? Why should some executive playing politico dictate how I make my character? If I want my half orc to be the result of a human male falling in love with an orc priestess who is that executive to judge me?

    Screw them and the high horses they rode in. Because the higher they are the hardest they fall.

  21. Patrick says:

    I…don’t see what was solved at all? Any race being inherently inclined toward evil is racist, and saying their culture and god is the root instead of genetics…that’s pretty fucked up. The implication here is “they can be good, they just need to forsake their inherently evil and savage culture and god.”

    And don’t give me the excuse that it’s just fantasy, media affects reality and reflects the views of the people who make it, regardless of intent–listen to the PoC telling you this shit is racist, they are the experts in lived experience. And the justification of having rape be an everyday thing…y’all wonder why you drive women and minorities away. It’s not the 90s anymore. Grow the hell up.

    • TC says:

      But religion being why you’re evil instead of your inherent genetics is super progressive don’t you know man?

    • Joon says:

      Sounds like you’re the one who needs to grow up, seeing as you can’t separate fact from fiction. Yeesh. What an ugly person you are.

    • Britt says:

      Honestly I don’t see the problem, some of the Gods in D&D ARE evil, and if someone was raised to worship it..?

  22. Dean Dixon says:

    Good read! Thanks man.

  23. Matt says:

    The truth is half orcs are a result of rape. When a female orc goes into heat, she will mount anything. A skinny human male, a shy halfling, a fallen tree stump, you name it. All is mounted with wild abandon.
    People need to stop being so damn sensitive, its watering everything down.

    • Patrick says:

      According to what fucking canon? You can pretty easily make adjustments so that stuff is accessible and also not racist as hell. As a survivor of sexual assault I sure as hell don’t want to have to deal with that shit as a part of the core worldbuilding, it’s gross and unnecessary. Meanwhile if I make a gay or trans character people scream it’s unrealistic. Rape yes, minorities no, apparently. What is wrong with you people?

      • TC says:

        Pathfinder. A game that is both hilariously progressive but also doesn’t shit away from dark shit.

      • TC says:

        Also being trans in a DnD setting is weirder than orc rape because there’s bigger survival issues than disphoria, magic can solve the “problem” by shifting your gender anytime, and playing a trans character instead of just the gender you identify as makes you look like you’re screaming for attention for being different.

        • Patrick says:

          Thanks for proving my point, jackass. Also, I am trans, so like, yeah. You’re good with rape but someone playing a minority is them screaming for attention? Really?

  24. TC says:

    I don’t like real world problematic thing therefore it shouldn’t exist in fiction and limit writing possibilities both to the characters and the world a bluh bluh bluh.

  25. Patrick says:

    Love when a ton of people who haven’t experienced sexual trauma try to make it mandatory in worldbuilding. Y’all sound like great folks (to be fired into the sun).

  26. C.C. Dalmont says:

    Many orc females find male humans appealing.

    • skiamakhos says:

      Maybe some human females find orcs appealing – I mean, have you seen some of those 1%er MC guys, like the really old gnarly dudes? They still get laid somehow. Maybe there’s a kink for it, women who love orcs?

  27. Ruprecht says:

    Why assume half human? A half-orc would be easier to explain as the union of Orc and Ogre who live together occasionally and are less likely to kill the child that resulted since the Ogre would likely have a high place in whatever society.

    • Ruprecht says:

      And regarding Half-Elves. Half Elf is an insult used by Elves against any Elf they think is hanging out with humans too much. Elrond spent far too much time with Aragorn and Gandalf and his racist people started calling him a half-elf as a result.

    • Simon says:

      Ogre-Orc is traditionally an Ogrillon or Orog in D&D.

  28. Simon says:

    Unless I’m running Mentzer Classic D&D for small children, I generally like ‘troubling implications’ in my fantasy. OTOH I like Goliaths too, probably more than I like half orcs, and there are a couple Goliath PCs in IMCs currently.

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