On ‘What to do about the Orc Children’

This post initially started as a comment to this post on Hack & Slash, regarding what to do with the noncombatant offspring of evil humanoids, but it grew too lengthy to be a comment, so it is presented as a post here. It was a rather short post, but the comment discussion that follows really develops the topic well, and is one of the best examples of reader/blogger interaction I’ve seen.

The post outlines an adventuring party’s typical responses to captured enemy noncombatants based on character alignment, as quoted below:

What to do with the Orc Children?

  • Lawful Good: Kill Them!
  • Neutral Good: *Hangs head*, kill them!
  • Chaotic Good: Kill them!
  • Chaotic Neutral: Uh, maybe we shou-nahh Kill ‘em!
  • True Neutral: Look at what you did to my garden! DIE!
  • Lawful Neutral: Eliminate them!
  • Lawful Evil: ENSLAVE THEM!
  • Neutral Evil: Run free to die in the wild!
  • Chaotic Evil: KILL THEM!

Players coming to the hobby more recently may not remember it, but monster lairs in 1e modules were frequently populated with plenty of noncombatants, with no real notes about what to do with them after the heroes dispatched the monsters who could fight back. Strangely, the practice seemed to disappear in modules of all subsequent versions of the game.

Taken in the spirit I believe it was offered, some of the original post was funny – especially the neutral’s take about what happened to his garden (since the 1e rules specified that Druids were the only true neutrals). It was funny, not because I think slaying the helpless is humorous, but because those responses rang true with virtually every 1e Dungeons & Dragons game I played in, mastered or even observed; it was funny in the same way a political cartoon can be funny. While it is important to note that my being in my early teenage years at the time may have influenced my views on the topic during the 1e days, I totally understand the place from which the post’s author is speaking.

Speculating on that realization marked the point at which my intended comment for that blog became a full post here. The fact that some of those commenting on the post disagreed with the morality of slaying evil noncombatants – when many 1e veterans, myself included, didn’t give the matter a second thought – showed a juxtaposition worthy of exploration. How far can a hero go when dispatching evil creatures? Are we just using the labels of good and evil to justify violence in the game? Given that it is a fantasy game with an emphasis on combat, does it even matter if we use labels for that purpose?

From reading comments made by the post’s author, it is clear that the author is of the mind that, in a fantasy millieu, orcs are evil incarnate and, in the context of a module like Keep on the Borderlands, suffering them to live is to invite destruction on your children and grandchildren. In light of how the module described what would happen if the heroes fail in their quest at the Caves of Chaos and the description of orc in the 1e Monster Manual, I agree with that perspective.

That perspective, however, led me to a larger question about the presence of evil noncombatants in the first place. In keeping with its wargaming roots, logic and realism predominated in both the rules and modules of 1e AD&D (with the exception of the flumph and flail snail, but exceptions are required to prove the rule); thus, having a humanoid tribal lair without noncombatant females and young is as bad, from a design standpoint, as designing a lair without sources of food, water or even air, or mapping a building with fireplaces that don’t align with a building’s chimneys. That dedication to realism – or at least to internal design logic – created the quandary of noncombatant young. The responses given in the original post typified how most adventuring parties acted when faced with that quandary, and all of them rang true during my 1e days.

The author’s position that orcs are evil incarnate – which, as even a limited perusal of the 1e rules and discussion board posts made by Mr. Gygax suggest, was probably the position of the author of 1e AD&D  – morally justifies the action of killing the noncombatants. Of course, the fact that monsters are evil is used as justification for much of the violence in the game; this argument about noncombatants is only the most emotionally provocative form of that concept.

The idea is similar to one explored by this article on Yahoo! Movies, which posits that the original Star Wars trilogy is inferior to the subsequently released prequel trilogy, since the lines between good and evil in the earlier films were so clear. The author of that article, Timothy Sexton,  states that the original trilogy was more successful than the prequel because audiences like to identify with “the good guys,” and that American audiences in particular favor stories about underdogs banding together against overwhelming odds, as such a plot mirrors the way American schools teach American history. Sexton continues that in the prequels, we see a different view of the Old Republic, one not so worthy of reverence as in the earlier films.In the prequels, the Republic is a government that, through its own democratic processes, steals freedom from its citizens. Sexton suggests that the moral quandaries presented in the prequels, which are addressed by flawed characters and result in terrible consequences, make for a more realistic, and therefore better, story, even if we Americans can’t – or won’t – identify with it.

The quandary of evil noncombatants presents a similar problem. It certainly makes for a more realistic story, and D&D heroes can be morally justified for committing what would otherwise be an atrocity because the noncombatants are “evil,” in original Star Wars Trilogy fashion. If that view of game morality works for the DM and players of a given campaign (and no criticism is forthcoming if it is), play on. But what if that morality doesn’t work with everyone at the table?

One commenter on the original post made an especially lucid observation about what happens when that case applies:

Imagine it: a player has succeeded in winning against impossible odds, and then the GM marches the victims of his ambition through his character’s newly-built castle’s yard, where he can see the widows and crying children of his enemies being forced off into prison camps. The player futilely demands for fair treatment of the vanquished, but the GM brings in a parade of vapid and cruel underlings tied down by their medieval mores, refusing and incapable of understanding his wish to not be tarred as a monster. It is clear that the GM is now driven to prove that the player’s struggle for victory was ill-conceived to begin with, and he’s the real monster of the story. This is certainly great drama, but the GM who is doing this in a D&D game (as we play it here) would be stepping outside his purview: the GM has no right to moral provocation in this game, it’s not the subject matter and it’s not for him to be the accuser. It’s as if the Banker in Monopoly refused to shut up about the poor tenants who’re going to be left homeless when I build my hotel.

The phrase “moral provocation” is what triggered the thought behind this post. It suggested to me that, as a DM, there is a line that perhaps I shouldn’t cross, or that I should at least weigh the consequences of crossing, with respect to moral quandaries.

If I had my way, I’d avoid including evil noncombatants in the game in the first place, even if results in less realism. If I had to include them, though, I’d like to see them released (as thy pose no immediate threat) or enslaved (if the players are convinced that a not-so-immediate threat is still too dangerous).

What do you think? Please consider sharing your thoughts on this topic in a comment to this post.

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16 comments on “On ‘What to do about the Orc Children’

  1. For fantasy games, if we get into the subject of black and white morality (“I’m Lawful Good, he’s chaotic evil”), then ideally, the GM and the game should be presented in that fashion–orcs are evil, so are their vile children.

    So that if a good adventurer dispatches every orc, young and old, there is no fault of morality here. But this is really hard to divorce from our everyday sense of right and wrong because we grow knowing that children aren’t born evil, they are just made that way. It’s truly hard to suspend our disbelief if adopt such a simple worldview in our games.

    So what to do? One approach is that we treat the fantasy world as the real world. Eliminate alignment and let players and creatures live as their culture, environment, and logic dictates. Players who want to be sadistic can dispatch the little orc children if they want, but most players will not.

    Or keep alignment, but give the players a clear conscience in their choices. For example, the orc children are cared for by the elderly orcs so that’s two groups, but neither group fights the PC’s and they will offer surrender to them if the PC’s spare them. At least the PC’s don’t have to worry about the orc children being left in the wilderness to die, because there are caretakers. This is basically my approach. If I have one vulnerable group, I’ll have a second to act as a “morality” buffer for players who don’t want to engage in wanton slaughter and don’t have to worry about putting orc children up for adoption after the PC’s killed their parents and took their stuff.

    The other consideration is that often orc children are depicted as helpless. Realistically, if such a culture existed, they would be anything but helpless. A culture that is bred upon might-making-right and violence as the only way to get your way will definitely have young orc children attacking the PC’s. Truly helpless orc children will have died off in such a culture of violence so that the only ones left are the ones who have a dagger in their hand and ready to stand with the other “big” orcs to fight.

    As I stated, as a GM, I offer the players several choices if I have a vulnerable group in a dungeon raid or whatever:

    1. The vulnerable group is as evil as can be. This is fantasy of black and white. Orcs are evil, elves are good, player characters can make choices.

    2. The vulnerable group isn’t really vulnerable. A culture bred in violence will react with violence. Very much the PC’s will be fighting orc children first before fighting the grown soldiers because such societies place might-makes-right in which the lowest gets the most dangerous jobs.

    3. Truly helpless groups will have a buffer group for morality choices in which letting the vulnerable live is the moral choice. So not only is there orc children, but there is orc elderly to care for them when the adult population is wiped out.

    4. The PC’s win when they decimate the population to a certain percentage. For example, The DM who budgets that the PC’s will fight 100 adult orcs will encounter a lair of about 300-400 orcs including able-bodied orcs, orc children, and orc elderly. Once the PC’s hit that number, the orc tribe considers their lair compromised and they will flee when the PC’s go to rest elsewhere in the dungeon or leave the dungeon to recuperate. The only thing left behind will be the various vicious animals, traps, and the intended spoils the DM had for 100 orcs.

  2. Svafa says:

    I ignore the alignment system for the most part; it’s useful as a quick-reference chart for generalizing or stereotyping a character, but beyond that I don’t find it useful to play, and often find it hinders play.

    To that end, I make most of the monstrous “evil” races much more human. They may appear (or even be) barbaric and savage in comparison to human, dwarf, of elf society, but human, dwarf, and elf society looks just as barbaric and savage to them. This gives me and the players leeway to act in either direction based on their characters’ morality and perspective.

    One character might leave the orc non-combatants to live, as all life is sacred and maybe, as an outcast themselves, they can empathize with being misunderstood. Another might slaughter the entire tribe of orcs without a second thought, and the local village of humans will cheer their heroics, believing all orcs to be the epitome of evil. And another might seek a diplomatic solution, receiving scorn from both sides, but if persistent and successful, creating a world where orc and human can live together in peace.

    Of course, in most games I’ve run, played in, or read session summaries of, the main villain is almost always a member of the “civilized” races, more often than not a human. So why give orcs such a bad wrap just because of their appearance? If D&D has taught me anything it’s that your run-of-the-mill human is far more evil than any monster imaginable.

  3. Alric says:

    Excellent ideas, both of you.

    Yong, I hadn’t thought about the not-so-helpless humanoid offspring; a DM playing up the savagery of the little onoes would probably have an easier time with dispatching the wee beasties.

    Svafa, I also agree with you about run-of-the-mill human being more evil than anything else – and about tossing the alignment system if it doesn’t work.

    Thank you both for your visits and input.

  4. ClefJ says:

    This is. … Well it hits home. Normally this wasn’t dealt with early in my gaming history. They go running or they fight, was the norm, and we’d never have to deal with it.

    Recently however, a friend started up a Shadowfell campaign. And that whole ‘genre’ I suppose is Awash with moral quandaries. We killed some Swamp Hags, but discovered that there was a whole settlement of children left behind after we had dispatched the parents. We had debated for… quite literally, hours, about what to do. Mercy-kill them? Let them starve to death on their own? Take them with us and, most likely, see many die off anyways through the harsh terrain we were heading towards? We were forced to leave them behind as a band of mostly-neutral-good characters to let as nature would with them. Still, one example of many that have been and are sure to come from the Shadowfell.

    It’s an aspect of roleplaying that, as the argument between the old and new Star Wars movies, I enjoy greatly. Even as a kid I questioned how many thousands of noncombatants died on the Death Star when Luke blew the thing up to save a few hundred rebels. I was later consoled on the idea that it was mostly an empty shell. Heheh. Gray areas are my favorite fields to explore in an RPG.

    I’d like to deal with such things in my own campaign, although admittedly it is still more black-and-white than the Shadowfell I’ve come to experience.

  5. Alric says:

    I felt the same way when reading the original post. Interestingly, published material in recent editions has completely avoided that sort of content – everything the heroes encounter in 4e is a willing combatant.

  6. Andy says:

    I think that, at long last, the game Burning Wheel finally solved this issue for me. In BW (the latest edition is Gold, essentially a totally polished version of the game), orcs are not Always Chaotic Evil, but they are fueled by a stat called Hatred. It rises as they do more Orcish, evil things, and are exposed to beauty unmarred. In other words, it’s incredibly hard for an Orc to remain good, but it’s technically possible. It’s just something they’ll have to fight against for their whole life.

    I thought that was really cool and compelling, how the game made the race’s evil tendencies into something a notch higher than psychological warping, but not as high as “irredeemably evil”. So, under that paradigm, the question certainly gets a bit more morally visceral.

    • Alric says:

      I’d agree with that. I wonder if a DM could import a mechanic like that instead of using alignment? Purists would probably argue that “it isn’t D&D anymore,” but I think it could be worth a try.

      Sounds like another post topic for the editorial calendar…

      • Andy says:

        Hmm, that does sound interesting. Burning Wheel‘s “Belief” system represents another aspect of alignments themselves, but a more colorful and less ingrained-by-nature aspect, which also deserves a look. Essentially, players choose from 1-3 Beliefs, things like “The world is doomed unless I retrieve the Lost Staff of Falzar.” or “Magic is the ultimate corrupting source of this world.”

        You’re not bound to those Beliefs, but you get in-game rewards (Fate points, which can be spent for minor bonuses to die rolls) for bringing in and acting on a Belief in a way that pushes the story forward, particularly at some cost to your character. Interestingly, you get an even bigger reward for playing out the tension between a Belief and a harsh decision that you have to make. It’s all very cool.

        http://www.burningempires.com/store/index.php/front-page/burning-wheel-gold-hub-and-spokes.html << This is the preview of the game, by the way, the actual first 74 pages of the main 600-page book. It contains a solid outline of it, and enough of the system to actually play with pre-made characters. Well worth a read, it's almost like a contemporary story-oriented approach to old-school D&D fantasy.

  7. Alric says:

    Thanks for the link.

    This is going to sound strange, but there is a belief and goals system in place for Toon, the cartoon role-playing game from Steve Jackson. I guess a one- or two-word description isn’t always the best way to summarize someone’s beliefs.

  8. [...] On ‘What to do about the Orc Children’ from The RPG Athenaeum (rpgathenaeum.wordpress.com) [...]

  9. This a repost from Stuffed Shark but basically…

    Yeah, I always had a similar problem after I’d move away from D&D and to other games. When I came back to it, they seemed trite and a bit simplistic…and like you, I hated the idea of ‘evil races’ so much, I went so far as to remove humanoids from my campaign.

    Recently though, I’ve softened a bit on the idea. I think it was a foray into Runequest and reading lots of Glorantha stuff… I began to think in terms of myth and wondered why in games it wasn’t possible to have a more mythic setting. In myths and faery tales, you don’t stop to ask why the ogre is evil, you just understand that it is and react accordingly.

    Still, for most of my campaigning, I prefer the Chaos vs Law spectrum and the unspoken idea that there are just as many good people following Chaos as their are that follow Law and ultimately, it’s Balance that’s the true way.

    Oh, and I also think where the real problem lies was in trying to imagine Orcs (and similar humanoids) as behaving according to human society. Why do Orcs need to have young? Why can’t they be spawned beneath the deep earth in sorcerous vats, or brood queens laying hoards of young? I mean, Tolkein’s Orcs didn’t have tribes and noncombatants… I never understood why D&D did.

    • Geoffrey says:

      Tolkien’s Orcs and Goblins actually had different tribes and noncombatants. Although one has to look to see them. Gollum is described in a way that says that when he was hunting with the ring he would go for the throats of some orc children. And when listening to the interaction between orcs it becomes clear that a lot of the are of different tribes, so a social structure is implied heavily. The problem with Tolkien is that even before the movies came out a lot about him was misrembered in the name of typecasting the whole setting in a straight fantasy medieval setting that can not really be seen in the books itself.

  10. Sorry, when I said ‘tribes’ I meant it in the sense that while they may have unit groups with different leaders, they were never shown to have females or noncombatant members, say like in the Caves of Chaos. Poor word choice.

    And while Gollum does make that statement, elsewhere Tolkien describes them as “bred from the heats and slimes of the earth”. And he changes their origin story in several places, so it’s hardly misremembering so much as picking the version you prefer.

    Also, even if Gollum killed and ate orc children, that in no way means they are non-combatants…it just means they were weak enough for him to kill, or easier to surprise, or less likely to be missed, or any other number of possible suppositions.

  11. Alric says:

    Thanks for your comments, guys. I think that the whole noncombatant thing was linked to the D&D game’s wargaming roots and commitment to realism (inasmuch as a game with walking skeletons and flumphs can seem real) or, at least, having a more consistent internal logic, rather like simulating the burdens of taking on prisoners which was the part of most battles re-enacted in historical wargaming up to that point.

    Interesting points though, especially about how a social structure is implied in Tolkein’s works, but not specifically illustrated. That angle could provide a convenient solution to this problem, if a DM woulde consider taking a page from Tolkein’s playbook.

  12. I personally hate the idea of “evil races”. There are evil deeds, evil magic, but no creature, unless magical in nature, can be inherently “evil”. I try to create motivations for my villains instead. Tribe of orcs for example has an extremely primitive, animalistic culture. If they threaten a village, it is because their numbers have grown too big, and village fell into their territory. Or it could be because they were chased away from their own land by a larger threat. This allows characters to approach the problem according to their own moral views – exterminate the entire orc population, or cull their number, frighten them away from human settlement, remove the threat that caused migration.

    Preserving internal consistency and realism is a great way to create unique and memorable stories that go beyond “kick in a door”.

  13. Jerry Lee says:

    If the goblin children are saved and reeducated, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a good act since they might be later thrown into slavery… no one can be a hero, ‘cuz every act has a positive and negative effects to different individuals.

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