Last week I covered how to roleplay elves, check it out here.
Half-orcs are perhaps my favorite race when it comes to roleplaying possibilities. Along with Half-elves, they straddle the line between human and other.
Half-orcs are essentially the ultimate outsider. Where half-elves are mediators between elves and humans, half-orcs are outcasts. That doesn’t mean your half-orc has to be Mr. Gloomy McOutcast though. Playing against expectations can also create a rich and memorable character.
I’d love to play a half-orc wizard who is soft-spoken, fastidious about their appearance, and was born to nobility and wealth knowing nothing of the plight of the poor. He’d only eat the finest of foods and his familiar would be a cat (because they bathe themselves) named Mr. Butler.
The Basics of Roleplaying Half-Orcs
Let’s take a look into what the canon description of half-orcs offers and then dive into how you can expand on this in your own homebrew games.
The Player’s Handbook gives three core pieces to playing a half-orc:
- Your appearance has an immediate, distinct and powerful effect on people you interact within both the civilized and the orc world.
- The Mark of Gruumsh amplifies your emotional pallet. Emotional responses from rage to fear to joy are larger than normal life and cause a stronger physical sensation in half-orcs than in their human counterparts.
- Half-orcs struggle to live fully among orcs or among humans. The inability to fit cleanly into either world forms a core part of the half-orc experience.
Some not-so-fun realities that can turn into really fun roleplaying opportunities! Woo!
Half-orcs offer a very dynamic background with many rich hooks for awesome roleplay. They also have the capacity to allow for the exploration of real-world topics like the systematic inequalities racism creates or examining what happens when a two cultures clash or finding identity in two heritages that seem to be in conflict.
While it could get tiresome at every town to need to prove yourself to the humans that you aren’t worth messing with, it can present some pretty great adventure hooks when used sparingly and with purpose.
The roughness that is presented as inherent to half-orc life in the PHB is also a great source of past trauma, adventure hooks, and character intentions to help fuel your character’s depth and add to the fun of roleplaying.
Perhaps the plight of a tribe of goblins reminds you of your own time in poverty and instead of destroying them all, you help them build a new settlement where they can live in peace.
As an adventurer, you feel a special call to putting yourself in danger for a life-changing reward, and knowing why you answered that call is the core intention that can carry your character through a campaign.
Essential parts of playing a Half-Orc
The Mark of Gruumsh gives you an innate desire to rage and destroy. It also amplifies all other emotions. Half-orcs then feel things more deeply and express this in a larger way than humans. Perhaps your half-orc has learned to repress or deny these emotions or perhaps they embrace them, using them as a source of comfort. Play hard, fight hard is the cliche of half-orcs. They are the ultimate bros with a chip on their shoulder.
From the stats, we also get a number of interesting roleplay opportunities.
The Player’s Handbook also notes that half-orcs age noticeably faster than humans. Think of how that would impact your world-view. How does your impending mortality affect you when it seems to rush on you faster than nearly any other race in a world full of elves that live for millennia?
The racial ability Relentless Endurance points to one of the defining traits of orc-kind. You never quit. Orcs are traditionally depicted as a relentless force bent on destruction. Half-orcs offer the opportunity to take that same burning drive and apply it to whatever your character wants.
Want to be the richest man in town? The greatest name in magic? An emperor? A half-orc will feel a kind of physical anguish, a truly gnawing hunger in their belly as they strive for it.
With Menacing you gain proficiency in the Intimidation skill. You can consider how your character learned that. Maybe interacting with other children growing up gave you that edge, or perhaps you noticed that if you turn your head just right, it spooks the living hell out of anyone.
Also, consider how you learned the orc language. Was it through a parent, or did you try to learn it on your own? What sorts of works of art or cultural traditions that are in the language? Any listings of lineages before a battle, or poems of war and creation? What sort of oral histories does your orc know about their parentage? Are you the descendant of a great war-chief or a slave?
Questions for the DM:
Two questions that you can explore to help fit half-orcs into your campaign world are:
- How do orcs in your world survive?
- How do they eat and how do they get the goods they need to survive?
These two questions help develop how orc and humans interact with each other in your world.
Not every tribe can survive on raids alone. A cultural zone I often use as a reference in my own games is the interactions between Imperial China and the various steppe peoples north and west of them.
The interactions over time include war, conquest, intermarriage, cultural assimilation. It wouldn’t be entirely unheard of in a border town populated by half-orcs. Maybe there was some historical event that caused a truce or alliance between humans and orcs, and the player is a result of it?
Questions to fill out a half-orc backstory:
Where does your half-orc fit within the community? What do they do? If they left why?
How was your half-orc’s childhood? What values from their human parents did they embrace? Which did they reject?
How do they feel about their orcish heritage? Are they curious about it? Does it strongly define them, or do they work hard to distance themselves from it?
How did your character learn orcish?
How far back was your orcish ancestor? How did that union come about?
Half-orcs too uncultured? Find out how to roleplay elves here.