Despite putting several words together in punctuated sequence in my last post, I don’t think that I actually made the point I was striving towards. I chalk this up to writing the post on the fumes of my conscious cycle (my rhythms are mad erratic, yo).
However, having finally reached Warhammer’s Orcs at the end of the last post, and in the spirit of forward momentum, let’s try again:
Both Warhammer “worlds” (Fantasy and 40k) are dark-ass places characterized by violence, ignorance, and a slow creeping certainty that something is going to get you. Magic has a Lovecraftian feel, in that any practice of it is potentially corrupting and absolutely dangerous. You don’t see all that many DnD mages accidentally exploding when they cast a lightning bolt, but that sort of thing isn’t uncommon in Warhammer. The ignorance comes across better in some of the fiction than in, say, a tabletop army clash. Entire races in the game are treated as superstition, despite (in the case of the Skaven) actually living underneath most of the world’s human cities. The threat of Chaos taint is omnipresent, but each Chaos God has such a different slate of interests that even this never gets old. Khorne wants to batter down the door of your farmhouse and slaughter your family, but Slaanesh is just looking to get your daughter to experiment. Nurgle wants to put something in the city well that will make everyone’s head turn yellow with pus and pop, while Tzeentch might be satisfied with encouraging the kindly hedge wizard to delve a little too deeply into that book he found the other day. If handled properly, the Warhammer setting is one of the richest, most mature settings I’ve ever read.
And then, there are the orcs.
Orcs are humanoid marauders who live for little more than senseless violence. They’ll slaughter a defenseless village or throw themselves against a castle’s walls in ceaseless waves. They’re a horde of marauders fully willing to turn against their leader the moment he shows weakness. So are beastmen.
Orcs are also massive, with a physiology unfazed by all but the most precise and powerful blows. Even those strikes might fail to drop them, and if an orc has even a few minutes to rest he will be fully recovered. But that’s all true of ogres, too.
What sets orcs apart from these other races is that they are idiots. They are truly, genuinely, aggressively stupid. They’re so stupid that it actually loops around and becomes an asset. As Brett pointed out in his first comment on my last post, when an orc in 40k paints something red it actually flies/drives/rolls faster. Because it’s red. And red things are fast, you see.
Orcs in Warhammer are a profound demonstration of just how far a few natural advantages can take a humanoid race, especially compared to humanity. Orcs are harder to kill than humans, and stronger than humans, and their physiology adapts to violence and injury by growing in both size and strength. Their currency is teef, which is to say teeth, which is to say molars and bicuspids. Their weapons and armor are generally no more sophisticated than metal that is either sharp or thick (but probably both). Compared to the firearms of the Empire, the heavy calvary of the Bretons, the graceful swordplay of the elves, the corrupt “gifts” of Chaos, or even the mad science of Skaven Warp Engineers, orcs should have no chance.
But that’s why they serve as such an excellent foil to the rest of the gameworld. Orcs work because they work, and their ridiculous ramshackle huts and rusty weapons fit the Gothic Warhammer world precisely because they stick out. Warhammer’s orcs sell being stupid so thoroughly that it becomes their most endearing trait. Orcs are big, and strong, and dumb, and if you’re playing an orc you’re playing a character who is big, and strong, and dumb.
This fascinates me because I can’t think of any other race with such thoroughly imbedded tropes I would actually play. The closest I’ve ever come to playing a tiefling Infernal Warlock was a pyromancer wizard (but not mage). I’ve never rolled a halfling rogue in 4e. I won’t even let other people roll drow rogues in games I’m running, because…c’mon, it’s a drow rogue. Concepts like that just feel so trite to me that I struggle to tolerate them; struggle, and usually fail.
But when I first started playing Warhammer Online and rolled a Black Orc, and moused over the character, I watched him bash the side of his skull with the flat of his choppa and thought Yes, that is EXACTLY right. My highest level WAR character is actually a Chaos Magus, a daemon-summoning ranged DPS class. He’s fun to play, flies around on a floating sentient disk, and uses creatures from the Warp like organic turrets to boost his damage. I also run a Zealot, which is a healing class who wields ritual magic to ravage foes and bolster allies. These classes have powers with evocative names, things like Tzeentch’s Cordial and Flickering Red Flame. The thing is, when I’m casting Glean Magic on a target, I’m doing so because I want to reduce his spirit resistance so I can layer a few more DoTs on him. It’s satisfying to drop some dwarven Slayer with a barrage of soul-rending spiritual damage, but it’s not all that different from when I did the same thing with my forsaken Warlock in WoW.
Early in the level progression with the Black Orc, you pick up ‘Da Biggest, which is an aura power that increases your total health (and heals you by an amount equal to the increase) when you hit things. I activated that power, hit someone, watched green numbers float above my head, and was more satisfied than I’ve ever been playing WoW, or even Dungeons and Dragons Online. And I love those games. WAR embraces da Green as enthusiastically as I do, as power names like ‘Da Biggest indicate. And even though many of the powers I have with my orc are ostensibly matched by the powers my Chosen wields (I have a lot of alts, okay? I filled all 10 character slots in the first weekend I played), it never feels that way. When I bash a target with my shield, and my armor goes up, it feels as though my orc is getting pumped. Hell, both Black Orcs and Chosen are tank classes, with a mechanic that lets them take half the damage dealt to a protected target. But for Chosen, the power is called Guard. For Black Orcs, it’s Save da Runts!
Black Orcs play more like their fiction than any of the other classes on the Chaos side. WAR is a pvp-centric game, and playing a Black Orc is a lot of wading into three or four enemies, then standing there not dying while your squishier allies burn your foes down. It is incredibly satisfying to do that; to watch waves of enemy attacks crash against the unwavering wall of your green stupidity.
I look at these orcs, and how much I love them, and how well they work; then I look at the various positions orcs have occupied in my various campaigns. And while I’m not eager to break orcs out of the role they occupy in Tinderbox, I do wonder if I shouldn’t have some race that occupies a similar role. I wonder if I should have a group that players can fight, and kill, without ever feeling guilty or wondering if they’ve closed off a valuable dialogue tree. Because whenever I think “No, my game needs to be more complex than that. Richer than that.” I remember those sweet, glorious frames where Wevin the Black Orc smashes his cheekbone flat with a length of sharpened steel.
And then I hit “publish” and go log into WAR.