Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

So apparently I'm in "complain about 3E" mode these days.

Let's think about 3E as if it were an attempt to re-simulate 1E, and just make some of the rules more consistent and standardized (which is how it always struck and enthused me). Well, let's look at the standard-issue enemy Orc in 3E. Remember that half-orcs are a PC race (in 1E and 3E), and they've always received a bonus to generated Strength (in 1E and 3E). In 3E, these bonuses always come in increments of 2, so the 3E Half-Orc must have a bonus of +2 (average result 12 or 13). Well, one can then reason that a *full* Orc must have a bonus twice as large, i.e., +4 (average result 14 or 15). Makes sense, right? That's obviously how the 3E designers saw things (as seen in the 3E MM).

Well, here's the problem: that chain of reasoning has now made Orcs far too tough in 3E, compared to their previous place in the D&D cosmos. It gives a +2 bonus on hit/damage rolls, and when given a greataxe by default, generates a stunning 1d12+3 base damage, triple that on a critical hit. In fact, a very standard critique of 3E damage/deadliness level is to take the stock Orc and consider a critical hit with that greataxe.

Moreover, it upends the usual hierarchy of who's the more powerful humanoid in D&D. Previously, Hobgoblins were held out to be a more powerful race than Orcs; in AD&D, they had more hit points, greater height (in MM), and more Strength (see DMG). But with 3E Hobgoblins only having Strength 12 (less than 1E), Orcs have a far greater damage output than Hobgoblins. You can see this reflected in the now-equal Challenge Rating scores (CR 1/2 as published). In this writer's physical playtests, it was even worse; it definitely looked like Orcs should have a higher CR than Hobgoblins.

So I'll identify this as another example when some D&D-revision-designer got over-focused on one small detail (specifically the Orc/Half-Orc Strength relationship), and lost sight of where that fit in the larger system (the hierarchy of humanoid power levels). And I think that's pretty common.

A proposal for a better solution, which I've now done in my Diminutive d20 rules, is this: Even if Half-Orcs get Str +2, there's no requirement for full Orcs to get as much as +4. Let's say in our fantasy universe "orc strength" is a dominant trait (which is compliant with the 1E MM saying that half-orcs almost always share the orcish characteristics), so Orcs get +2, and share all of that with any progeny. Of course, we should return Hobgoblins to the Str 15 (or thereabouts) that they were assigned in 1E AD&D. And thus avoid the otherwise foolish consistency.


  1. Makes sense to me. I pictured the monster hierarchy but as you described it, with Hobgoblins further up the "tree" than Orcs.

    It's not the Orc's Strength that bothered me though - I can dig Orcs as extremely strong savages - but their INT 8. It's too high for how they're trying to portray Orcs in 3e, and should really have been INT 6 to my mind. Instead, they used CHA as a dump stat. I'd suggest that an Orc's mere physical presence should have put CHA higher.

    A much better stat spread would have been

    Str 17, Dex 11, Con 12, Int 6, Wis 7, Cha 8

    Keep the high STR so the far more intelligent and cunning Hobgoblins can use them as slaves - but drop INT and raise CHA.

    This would make them just as dangerous in a fight, but relatively easy to out-think and trick - which makes for more interesting role-playing possibilities too.

    Great title, btw!

  2. Well, I have no problem with a game being deadly. The idea that a PC might be killed by the first blow that is ever struck them seems alien to a lot of players nowadays (even though a great many other creatures of the world will meet their end this way through the course of a game... weird). What's good for the goose, right?

    I could come to the defense of the 3e orc with things like "a human isn't as strong as an orc, so he probably won't prevail in one-on-one combat", or "orcs have other disadvantages, such as lack of good equipment or sophisticated tactics or variety or spellcasters (usually)".

    Also note that if you're playing by-the-book, a pair of orcs is set to be a suitable encounter for a group of level one characters. That should attest to their power... they are expected to be challenging when outnumbered two-to-one! Depends on your view though... I think the original idea was that CR= encounters were meant to be of only minimal difficulty. I ran 3e for years and I never agreed with this philosophy... but I suppose its necessary when slaying monsters is the only non-whimsical way to advance characters experience-wise in 3e.

    Your explanation of half-orcs sits fine with me though, I wouldn't even really contemplate it as much.

    Great blog, btw. It's was probably one of the reasons I switched to DMing classic D&D.

  3. Wiseman, it is the case that CR is defined in 3E as "the level of party that gets about 20% of its resources consumed by this monster" (from the 3E DMG).

    I think my overall point isn't that it's unimaginable for orcs to be strong, it's that (a) being stronger than men-at-arms and hobgoblins is a historical discontinuity for D&D, and (b) the 3E designers didn't actually plan for this, they backed into it purely by accident.

    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words!

  4. Just 11 years late to comment on this one (hope that's OK!): I suspect the increasing strength of the D&D orc owes as much to the influence of Warhammer as it does to the AD&D half-orc.

    Exhibit A in this theory is the illustration for the second-edition AD&D Monstrous Manual (, which looks very like an 80s Warhammer orc (green, tusked, gangly) and not very much like a first-edition Monster Manual orc (or the earlier Sutherland orcs in Swords & Spells, etc.).

    Warhammer orcs became bigger and butcher from the late 80s onwards, and D&D orcs followed suit: the third and fourth-edition ones are very much in line with the big, heavily muscled Warhammer "greenskins".

    Then World of Warcraft and other computer games reinforce the Warhammer look (or are exposed to it through D&D?) and that plays back into D&D.

    So I think orcs' overtaking of hobgoblins in D&D probably owes more to Warhammer than anything else.

    Oddly enough, *Warhammer* hobgoblins were originally at least a match for orcs physically, though fiercer, but they then vanished before reappearing in much weaker form.

    Of course, Warhammer orcs were originally D&D orcs, in that the early Citadel ranges were designed for RPGs in general and - tacitly - D&D in particular. The early-80s Fantasy Tribe range are tall and gangly with huge tusks and fangs, and are an imaginative take on the Monster Manual description. Then, in the mid-80s, there was a dip into Tolkien (orc=goblin) territory when GW had the LotR license; even the Warhammer orcs became shorter and longer-armed in this period, possibly because some were originally designed for the LotR range. Those are the ones that appear to influence the 2E Monstrous Manual illustration.

    It's something like the back-and-forth relationship between Westerns and Kurosawa's samurai films, I think!

    1. Great, great observations, thanks for those. That's a really solid argument that I wouldn't have come up with, I'm pretty easily convinced of that now.

      We love late comments, we're investing for the long-term. :-)