Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Fantasy orcs and the stormtrooper syndrome
There are two types of orcs in fantasy roleplaying: the kind that PCs routinely slaughter by the dozens, and the kind that offer an unexpected (and thoroughly deadly) threat to players who were expecting the aforementioned variety. Which type you meet in your campaign depends largely on the stormtrooper syndrome.
In the d6 Star Wars RPG, players coined this rather hilarious observation to describe the notion that stormtroopers -- described in game material and official canon as elite soldiers armed with the best weapons and equipment-- couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. They were little more than scrubs whose flashy armor couldn't protect them from the heroes' blaster bolts; it took just a single shot to drop them, both in the movies and in the game.
Now, this worked fine for Star Wars players who wanted to emulate the best space-opera moments from the original trilogy. But a small subset of GMs chose to make stormtroopers powerful and rare, more like the intergalactic special forces they profess to be. In these games, regular Imperial Army troops filled the drop-like-flies stormtrooper role, and players quickly learned to dread seeing a flash of white armor in the distance.
It warms my heart when lowly fantasy orcs get this same treatment. I've modeled my own orcs on Fantasy Flight's Midnight campaign setting, which sees these brutes as the garrison troops of a victorious army, lording over the cowed populace and striding with confidence across the ravaged countryside -- kind of like how Middle Earth would have looked, had Sauron won.
Midnight's orcs got a stat boost, sure, but they got a much more subtle treatment in the fluff of the game. Simply put, they're terrifying, and everyone knows it. To the average commoners, orcs embody the horror and savagery that lurk just outside the town walls. A hero of great renown might be remembered in songs for facing down three or four of these monsters -- and dying in the process, of course.
These are the orcs of my campaign world. There will be plenty of low-level encounters populated by goblins and kobolds, sure, but the orc will be special.
[Image credit: ~Geistig, deviantART]