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]


jamused said...

I don't really get the impulse to make opponents that are scrubs in the source material badasses in the campaign...by doing that you guarantee that the players who are looking to perform the way the heroes do in the source material you're emulating will come off as incompetent yutzes. A kid fresh off the farm, without any training, can plow through Stormtroopers like nobody's business...but not the PCs. Legolas and Gimli can have a contest to see who kills the most orcs as the few hundred defenders of Hornburg fight thousands of orcs...but not the PCs.

Why do that to the PCs? If you want to have NPCs that the PCs will have trouble facing but the setting lacks them, make up new ones, but don't build it into the game world that the PCs are going to be the scrubs who'll never match up to the heroes of the stories.

Anonymous said...

But doesn't that always happen to the PCs? The Heroes of Legend took on entire groups single-handedly. They never needed to group up to accomplish anything. The AD&D Artifact rules stated this outright. ("Every artifact will eventually beat their user into a gibbering mess because they couldn't possibly be as badass as their original owner.") The PCs are the Eternal Wannabes, doomed never to accomplish as much as their predecessors.

This is because the storied heroes never have to Roll. They just Succeed. If the Greek myths were a D&D campaign, Perseus would be a fine statue & Hercules's plan to clean the Augean stables would've never made it past the GM. The PCs can never match up to the heroes in the stories; the best they can do is make snarky comments about how far the legends should've gotten until they rolled a 1 and got their eyes imploded by a cursed scroll.

jamused said...

I seem to recall something about a Fellowship in LotR, and wasn't there a rag-tag bunch of misfits taking on the Empire in SW?

It's not whether the PCs are epic legendary heroes, incapable of failure. It's whether the kinds of deeds that are the reason the players are opting for a certain setting or style are regarded as "par." Par, imo, ought to be determined with reference to what the protagonists of the stories do. To me there's no point in trying to play something called "Star Wars" if you're going to make Stormtroopers individually capable of chewing up and spitting out entire squads of Rebels. If you do that as GM, you're not saying "Hey, you're not Hercules, you know", you're saying "You guys wouldn't even make good Ewoks."

PatrickWR said...

If the Greek myths were a D&D campaign, Perseus would be a fine statue & Hercules's plan to clean the Augean stables would've never made it past the GM.

QFT, and it makes me chuckle to think about it.

@jamused: Good points. It's all moot if the social buy-in is structured so that the players know what they're expecting. I suppose that was a major thing I neglected to mention in my post here: the idea that the players are OK with changing something fundamental about the game world in order to further challenge their PCs. I can't say I've worded it as such to my players, but your comments here make the point that this is a necessary conversation to have, lest the players and the GM have wildly divergent expectations for the game.

Mark said...

This reminds me a lot of Tucker's Kobolds. (Okay, I know I'm dating myself.) http://tuckerskobolds.com/

I like it when something usually ho-hum becomes challenging.

As for PC's as Heroes of Legend, or PC's as wannabees, that will all depend on the GameMaster and the type of game. I have played in many games and both are and can be a whole lot of fun.

Mike said...

But...why is it necessary to make changes? If you're using a 'canon' scenario (LotR, Star Wars, etc) then you should already -have- things that are capable of threatening the PCs without you needing to mess with setting.

And if you're -not- using a 'canon' setting, and you don't have anything that can threaten the PCs, maybe it's time to consider a different setting. I'm uncertain of the point of taking a 'generic' critter and making it threatening, except to rudely turn the player's expectations on their heads in a surprise "Haha, the orc kicks all your arses!" moment. If you've already briefed and agreed with your players that Orcs in -this- world are big and bad and mighty, and should be feared, then it might be argued that, really, they're not -orcs- anymore, and therefore you haven't really achieved anything at all with your change except re-using the word 'orc' when you could have as easily used the term "Khas'ahk Mir" or "Thuggbrood" or whatever you want, because you're not really tapping into the collective opinion of what 'orcs' are anymore.

So... why, exactly, does one need to alter the fundamental nature of Orcs? (You can -almost- make a case for Storm Troopers, since they are, 'as written' supposed to be dangerous, and are only hapless and inept 'as seen in the movies' but c'mon. Unless you're playing with some pretty hardcore Star Wars buffs, the latter is way more canon than the former.)

.o. said...

@Mike: a common tool in the creative thinking toolkit is the "like X, but change Y" twist. Every DM should do this. It's a great creative launching point.

"What if we took halflings and used them in our new setting, with the main difference being they are now nomadic boat people?" 4e.

"What if we took halflings and kept them exactly the same, except they are nomadic dinosaur riders?" Eberron.

"What if we took storm troopers, and actually made them elite?" Homebrew variant of Star Wars.

What's the big deal? Dunno.

Why do this at all? Two reasons, I think. First is the cognitive dissonance can somehow be pleasing. The process of reinvention and reinterpretation is fun.

Secondly, it makes use of inherited constructs. It's much, much easier to say something is exactly like X only Y is different, than to create something new and describe it from scratch. By saying "orc, only badass" the GM can transfer over all those associations people have with orcs.

Mike said...

One might argue, however, that "Like Orc, only badass" is akin to "like a halfling, only tall". It changes the fundamental nature of the starting point so much that really, it doesn't make sense anymore.

Perhaps you don't have that level of association with the term "orc" but I think the point stands to some extent regardless.

.o. said...

Well, that's also an entirely different argument. If the question is "why alter the fundamental nature of orcs", I think I answered that. There is great creative material to be mined in reevaluating assumptions.

But if the counter-argument is "but those alterations are so fundamental they make my head explode" I'm not sure I can help you much. I can point out that there are several successful franchises that make orcs more badass (WoW, Warhammer, Midnight), so it is doable.

As different as all these orcs are, they all still seem to "orcs" to most people. That's what I mean about inherited constructs. You are right that in the process of revisualizing a monster you can go too far - I don't think you could call reptilian fire elemental creatures "orcs". But badass? Yeah, I don't think that's a stretch. But if orcs _have_ to be fodder in your games, fantastic - have a great time.