D&D General All Dead Generations: "Classic Vs. The Aesthetic"

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TheSword

Legend
As I said in my first post on Mindflayers, there are substantial differences between eating meat and what mindflayers do. I don’t believe opinions on the sentience of animals is relevant in this debate. You can approach this from the point of view that eating animals is wrong and still see a difference between humans and mind flayers.

If humans ate cows brains while the cows were still alive, in a manner in which chased maximum pain and horror because it tasted better that way and knowing full the well that the cow knew exactly what was happening to it at the time (and not caring/ or worse enjoying it) then that might make us like mind flayers. I don’t think we do though.

If humans marched cows via mind control to the dining room and made them watch the same happen to their compatriots, knowing that they could appreciate and anticipate what was happening then that might make us like mind flayers. We don’t do that either.

If some of the cows were randomly selected to have our fertilized eggs planted in their brains so our babies would grow inside them, painfully and eventually consuming their identity… and this was done in a way that the cow knew what was going to happen, then we might be like mind flayers. We don’t do that either.

The reality is we aren’t. The majority of humanity does have some form of animal welfare, and that largely was influenced by compassion and a desire not to inflict additional pain. While a dog may be sentient, an oyster has no central nervous system so I hope you can agree it isn’t. That welfare has increased in response to evidence that animals have some sentience. We try to minimize harm. Most decent people today recognize that foi gras is cruel and barbaric and would object to food made in these ways. It doesn’t mean they’re aren’t still cruel systems, however humanity generally tries to reduce cruelty.

The issue is not just that mind flayers eat brains, or reproduce in hosts. It’s that they are self aware of what they’re doing, and they know their victims are aware of what they’re doing, and they still act in such a way as to cause maximum harm. You can’t say the same about a wasp or parasitic larvae. Mind flayers are not acting on instinct… they are genius level creatures.

I would absolutely say that adventurers that use mental domination on sentient creatures for their own enjoyment, or convenience are evil yes (rather than self defence or achieve some more beneficial goal). Autonomy is an extremely important human right and loss of it is an primal fear. Charm monster, charm person and domination are one if the most problematic things in the game from a moral point of view.

The only way a mind flayer is not evil is if it fundamentally changes the way it behaves vs the typical mindflayer, abstaining from using its mental domination, it’s mind blast, reading people’s thoughts, using its acidic devouring tentacles to extract living brains, performing ceramorphosis with conscious beings. This might be a cool idea for you and I heartily encourage you to add it into your games, but it would be an aberration (not the creature type) and I don’t believe there is anything wrong with labeling the race monsters and evil… those humanitarian illithids would probably agree!
 

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Vyshan

Villager
And, as a final point, which I raised earlier, if the only reason we need "all evil" monsters that we can use, then why use humanoids? If these game elements are only there to be bags of HP that we whack for XP, then, well, there's a whole bestiary of monsters that we can beat on to our hearts content. However, if we want to use intelligent monsters with cultures and whatnot, well, the cost of that is you can't paint them using the same language that has been propagated in the genre for decades. That's the price. You want evil orcs? Great, you can have evil orcs. What you can't have is ALL evil orcs that are never presented as anything else, while at the same time using language that is full of ick.

Take your pick. You can have one or the other.
Simple I choose option C: All orcs the players encounter are 'evil' based on their beliefs, fanaticism, and adherence to a dogma based on propaganda. As you are no longer fighting simply a race but instead an opposing culture who is on a warpath complete with an army. Even children orcs the players encounter are raised and fed on that propaganda by other orcs about what makes their culture the best and correct.

Are their 'good' orcs? Yes. Will you as a player encounter them? Probably not. At most you might encounter one who is a deserter for their army.

Why use humanoids for an antagonistic force? Because nothing is more scary than encountering those who believe they are in fact in the right.

I use quotation marks around good and evil like 'this' because to show that gray exists. After all if you have two 'lawful good' armies battling it out because they both believe in what they are doing is fighting for a better future for their side, yet they don't see eye to eye based on cultural differences.
 



pming

Legend
Hiya!
The environment is massive.
The 'processing' is horrible.

For me, you simply just need to spend time around animals enough, notice their behaviors over time, and yes even cattle, sheep, whatever, and think on 'we grow these to be slaughtered'.

To me, there is something very messed up about that.
But is the alternative better? That being humans killing other humans over hunting grounds? Because that's what it'd come down to. That's the way it was before we started domesticating animals for food. Tribe A wandering into the hunting grounds of Tribe B = one tribe dying...men, women and children. Not because the winning tribe was 'bad', but because if they didn't, there would be a good chance the area would get 'hunted out'; then both tribes starve, with every man, woman and child on both sides.

Yes, it's a simplification, but that was the core aspect of life before we figured out how to domesticate, irrigate and grow our own food...oh, and store it for the winter.

We can't simply be herbivores. Not with our advanced society. We simply don't have the land or social/economic structure to do it. For example, Canada and the USA simply do not have enough land to feed everyone here if we tried to switch to a 'mostly vegetarian' diet (about 75% plant). It's impossible. So...what now? Well, we have to buy it from other countries or invade/conquer them. Guess which countries have the capability to handle this? If you said "Countries inhabited by non-white people", you win a vegetarian cookie! Most of Africa, Middle East, Philippines, Vietnam, China, Japan, etc. ...remember what I said about Tribe A and Tribe B? Ok, now what if Tribe A had Stealth Fighter, Bombers, and Drones...and Tribe B had Bi-Planes, Hot Air Balloons and Binoculars? How do you think it's going to turn out for Tribe B when Tribe A says "We need half of your food. Give it and we won't invade you".

Bottom line...as wonderful an idea it would be to be able to have a perfect balance of meat and veg, with no cruelty or misused/greedy land use (and sustainable water management)...we simply don't live in that world now. The ONLY way humanity survives more than another 50 to 100 years, is if we have a massive depopulation event (...dinosaurs ring a bell?), or we develop the tech to move into space, the moon and our solar system to set up food production and living space.

Wow. Did THAT go off topic! Sorry! But it is important to be said, so I think it's ok. If not, mods, just delete this.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
We can't simply be herbivores. Not with our advanced society. We simply don't have the land or social/economic structure to do it. For example, Canada and the USA simply do not have enough land to feed everyone here if we tried to switch to a 'mostly vegetarian' diet (about 75% plant). It's impossible.

This is just wildly factually incorrect. Meat is vastly more resource-intensive than produce because the animals have to be fed. We could in fact produce far more food for far more people if we only produced plant-based food.
 

This is just wildly factually incorrect. Meat is vastly more resource-intensive than produce because the animals have to be fed. We could in fact produce far more food for far more people if we only produced plant-based food.
This. At each stage in the food chain energy is wasted. e.g. cow eats grass. The fewer steps in the food production chain the more energy efficient it is. Given that "human photosynthesises" is not yet possible, "human eats plant" is the most efficient form of food production.

Doesn't mean you have to be vegan. Simply reducing the proportion of meat and dairy in your diet helps, just like using your car less.
 
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TheSword

Legend
We probably shouldn’t turn this into the rights and wrongs of being vegan. We’ll inevitably have vegans posting who will be offended by one side and omnivores feeling the same way about the other side. I don’t know if it counts as politics but the issue is about as annoying.

The mind flayer issue isn’t about whether eating meat is evil. Whatever you think about omnivores I would people don’t think they’re evil in the D&D sense.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Why would it? Sure, it applies to many 'planet of the week' species in Trek, but I really don't think that things like Vulcans or Klingons are just humans in rubber masks (only portrayed by such.) And Uz of Glorantha most definitely aren't. And sure, perhaps they are not as deep as real life humans, but neither are fictional humans; there is always limits on how much can be portrayed in fiction. But I think these feel like real people, and they still come across as somewhat differnt to humans. Putting these things ion setting actually adds something, it allows you to tell stories you otherwise couldn't. That's what I want.
You are correct. Things like Vulcans aren't just humans in rubber masks, because they are human enough in appearance that they don't even have to wear masks. They just have to wear fake pointy ears.

(Though originally Vulcans were supposed to have red skin, but on black-and-white televisions it looked a little too much like black face, so they scrapped the idea.)

But what if we add to this gygaxian formula the "load-bearing" tropes of subsequent editions, specifically the influence of LotR style epic fantasy and beyond? Because then you have the interesting situation where the outside grave robbers of the gygaxian game are now the chosen one heroes of the hickman and weis game (and of course there were elements of the latter in the former).

incidentally, it is a bit of a paradox when it is the gygaxian naturalists who want inherently evil monsters, as it goes against the playstyle and aesthetics you identify
Yeah, I do think that the new norm of play in D&D is possibly far closer to Eberron and Exandria (or even dare I say World of Warcraft) than it is the earlier Gygaxian load-bearing tropes.
 

Well, last I checked, my dog wasn't writing letters. Just how far down the rabbit hole you want to dive? It's a bit disingenuous to pretend that these two things are equivalent. Sorry, but I can't see this as anything but a bad faith attempt to pretend that farmers are now equivalent to mind flayers. :erm:
So eating illiterate humans is fine?

The argument you're making here (a common argument) is that because non-human animals are mentally lesser, it is OK to treat them terribly. But they actually have a minds very similar than ours, as any dog owner certainly would know. If there is a difference, it is one of degree not of kind. Mind flayers however have a telepathic hive-mind. That probably is far bigger difference than what exists between humans and pigs. So they can easily view things without telepathic hive-mind as mentally lesser, not truly conscious in the same way than they themselves are, and thus don't see a problem with treating them as things.

And none of this is to say that you couldn't or shouldn't use mind flayers as antagonists. They're great antagonists! And the potential analogy of how they see humans and how humans see non-human-animals is great! That just makes it smart horror. But the simplistic D&D alignment just doesn't work.
 

pemerton

Legend
older editions" did not have the same goal as we see more modern games having. Back in ye olden days of yore, orcs were EVIL AND SAVAGE! (Evil: "Morally bad/wrong; causing harm, pain, suffering" // Savage: "Wild; not civilized; barbaric"). They were specifically 'designed' so that it was an automatic "Kill them" response for the Players because from the PC's perspectives...any orc would ALWAYS seek to raid, pillage, kill and eat anyone or anything (including other orcs). The "goal" of the orcs being described as "evil and savage" had nothing to do with anything other than setting it up in-game for the human players at the table to not feel bad about killing them and taking their stuff.

Same with any other "evil race" described similarly. They were there to be KILLED not, talked to or reasoned with...because, in the context of the game, they were monsters. And the definition of a "monster" in early editions was basically "inherently evil, cruel and vindictive, with a desire to cause pain, suffering and death" (basically, look at the Evil alignment).
So much of this is factually inaccurate.

Here is the definition of monster from the AD&D PHB (p 40):

It is necessary to stress that the usage of the term "monster" is generic for any creature encountered during the course of adventuring. A monster can be exactly what the name implies, or it can be a relatively harmless animal, a friendly intelligent beast, a crazed human, a band of dwarves, a thief - virtually anything or anyone potentially threatening or hostile.

When your referee indicates your character has encountered a monster, that simply indicates a confrontation between your character and some type of creature is about to take place. The results of such a meeting will depend on many factors, including the nature of the monster and your character's actions. All monsters are not bad . . .

Here is the (briefer but similar) definition from Moldvay Basic (p B29):

Any creature that is not a player character is called a monster. Monsters may be friendly or unfriendly, wild or tame, normal beasts or fantastic. The DM will choose, from these monsters, the friends and enemies of the players.​

The same book has the following glossary entry (p B63): "monster - Any creature or character not controlled by a player."

And from the Rules Compendium (p 152):

A "monster," technically, is any creature that is not a player character. This chapter describes many different types of monsters . . . Monsters are not always ravenous beasts that automatically attack PCs and ferociously fight to the death. Monsters may be friendly or unfriendly, wild or tame, normal or bizarre. Some will be random, dangerous encounters; some will be long-term enemies of the PCs; some will be one-time or permanent allies of the PCs. The Monster Reaction Table from Chapter 7 can be used to determine how monsters respond to the PCs at first if desired.​

As well as these generic definitions, there are the rules for reaction rolls, which include modifications for conflicting alignments and racial preferences (which only make sense if combat is not the default); the example of play in Moldvay Basic (p B28) where the PCs try to parley with the hobgoblins; the rules for using Orcs and other "humanoids" as miners in the DMG; the rules for hiring Orc and Goblin mercenaries (including Goblin wolf-riders) in Marsh/Cook Expert (p X22); etc.

There is nothing in these various versions of classic D&D that entails or even suggests that Orcs and the like are to be KILLED rather than talked to or reasoned with. That may have been how you played the game, but it does not have textual support.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Why would differnt mean inherently evil?
Simple. Different often equates to unknown, and things unknown are often seen as evil or untrustworthy until-unless proven otherwise.
That is a bloody stupid difference to have. The point of differentiating non-humans is the same than in any fiction such is done, it is to be speculative, it is to be evocative of strange and alien worlds it is to contrast them with humans to highlight certain themes. Stuff like that.
Indeed. But if we want to lay out that contrast such that the humans are simply better/more civilzed/smarter/etc. than the aliens (or, in D&D, some of the other PC-available creatures), how can we do it and not offend anyone in how we describe the aliens?

Humans are smarter than Orcs. Humans are more civilized than Orcs, largely due to their long-term greater intelligence giving them a "tech" and comfort advantage (e.g. Orcs are still hunter-gatherers while Humans progressed to agriculture ages ago, giving more time and resources to devote to other things such as inventions, the arts, and so on). Humans, to other Humans (always the baseline for comparison) are also on average considerably more attractive and charismatic than Orcs.

Given these parameters, describe the Orcs as seen from a Human perspective.
 

pemerton

Legend
What are the load-bearing tropes for Gygaxian D&D?
  • The adventuring environment – dungeon, wilderness – must be unknown. The PCs should therefore come from somewhere else.
  • The adventuring environment must contain things the players want – treasure, magic items.
  • The adventuring environment must contain things the players want to avoid – wandering monsters, traps.
  • The adventuring environment must be large so there are many meaningful decisions to be made about where to go.
  • The adventuring environment should be lawless so no one can force the PCs to do anything.
  • If there are a lot of different 'grades' of monster and treasure then it makes the players' decisions more meaningful.
  • The existence of magic makes the DM's job much easier, in much the same way it makes a pulp fantasy writer's job easier.
  • The PCs should be detached from society – more like Conan than Frodo – so they are free to go anywhere they want.
Therefore I'd say the load-bearing tropes are:
  1. Civilisation vs wilderness.
  2. Lots of magic.
  3. Lots of monsters and other hazards.
  4. Big dungeons or wildernesses.
  5. PCs are rootless wanderers.
(2) and (3), to the extent that D&D embraces them, don't look like most of its sources in fiction, except to some extent Vance's Dying Earth and to a greater extent, the kitchen sink universes of Marvel and DC comics.

I don't think Evil monsters are essential. Good and evil seem entirely unnecessary to this power up finding, peril avoiding game. Monsters are evil from the PCs' perspective insofar as they prevent them getting what they want, but they don't have to be cosmically Evil.
But I think there are two rationales for the alignment system (which don't always work perfectly together): (1) to create additional gameplay complexity by setting up tendencies towards conflict, and placing restrictions on the actions declared by players of good/lawful PCs in exchange for better reactions and better access to healing/raise dead; (2) to eliminate any moral questions over large amounts of the violence endemic to the play of the game.

To relate this to my post just upthread: eliminating moral questions does not entail that evil creatures have no purpose in the game except to be killed. They are among the challenges/puzzles posed by the game, but there are many ways to approach encounters with them.

As @pemerton has pointed out, OD&D and AD&D 1e have several features that are at odds with amoral treasure-nabbing -- alignment, lawful clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, the gods, angels and demons/devils, Heaven and Hell.
But these probably weren't being fully leveraged in the early game. It's all a bit weird! (And even REH's Conan had Hell - see eg The Scarlet Citadel, which has the mind-sucking plant whose roots grow from Hell.)

Its probably less that "being the good guys" is essential and more that "playing people we relate to" is harder if you feel like what the characters are doing isn't justifiable, even if just incidentally so.

<snip>

Note that this applies even when the heroes are just seeking wealth-- you dont enter Barrowmaze to cleanse the thing for instance, it just likely happens if you go far enough and don't lose.
This is my (2) above, of the two functions of alignment in the early game.

But what if we add to this gygaxian formula the "load-bearing" tropes of subsequent editions, specifically the influence of LotR style epic fantasy and beyond? Because then you have the interesting situation where the outside grave robbers of the gygaxian game are now the chosen one heroes of the hickman and weis game (and of course there were elements of the latter in the former).

incidentally, it is a bit of a paradox when it is the gygaxian naturalists who want inherently evil monsters, as it goes against the playstyle and aesthetics you identify
I think the paradox shows that a lot of self-proclaimed "Gygaxian naturalists" are reinventing a tradition rather than actually engaging with the game texts produced in the early days of D&D, which were clearly very permissive about interactions between PCs, monsters, alignments etc. Just as one example, the prohibition on paladins having non-LG henchmen and on associating with evil characters only make sense against a background norm that such conduct is acceptable as part of the play of the game.
 

pemerton

Legend
Humans are smarter than Orcs. Humans are more civilized than Orcs, largely due to their long-term greater intelligence giving them a "tech" and comfort advantage (e.g. Orcs are still hunter-gatherers while Humans progressed to agriculture ages ago, giving more time and resources to devote to other things such as inventions, the arts, and so on).
This is pretty bad.

For most of human existence, all humans have been hunter-gatherers, and many still are, without any connection to differences of intellectual capacity.

If Orcs are capable of living as hunter-gatherers, and are capable of using language (which they clearly are), and are capable of worship (which they clearly are), and capable of using tools such as spears and shields (which they clearly are), then they are obviously capable of building houses, living in cities, engaging in commerce, etc. For cultural reasons they may have a preference not to do so; but that seems no different from the preference of many contemporary humans not to live as agrarian or urban peoples even though those options are probably available to them, given the numeric, political and economic dominance of such forms of life.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Mind flayers. No they're not misunderstood. But no, they're not inherently evil either. They're exactly as evil as humans are for eating animals. We eat animals. Mind flayers eat intelligent life.
Which, from the point of view of said intelligent life (which includes all PC-playable creatures!), makes them evil as all hell.

Never mind that they don't just kill for food.
Having a limited diet doesn't make you evil. That we think they're evil doesn't make them so. We're their food. Of course we think they're evil. Just as chickens, if they were sufficiently intelligent, would think humans were evil for eating them.
Indeed; but as it's the PCs who are casting the Detect Evil and the universe (for better or worse) is built around PC conceits, then Evil they are.
Well, it's presented as an absolute the majority of the time, so it's not a giant leap to assume it is an absolute. And when it's not presented as an absolute, it's presented as the default.
Yet isn't there some blanket disclaimer in the 5e MM (or DMG) that says the listed alignments are a general tendency and variances can/will happen? If yes - and I'm sure I've seen it quoted upthread - then reading those listed alignments as absolutes is an error in comprehension.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Simple. Different often equates to unknown, and things unknown are often seen as evil or untrustworthy until-unless proven otherwise.

Indeed. But if we want to lay out that contrast such that the humans are simply better/more civilzed/smarter/etc. than the aliens (or, in D&D, some of the other PC-available creatures), how can we do it and not offend anyone in how we describe the aliens?

Humans are smarter than Orcs. Humans are more civilized than Orcs, largely due to their long-term greater intelligence giving them a "tech" and comfort advantage (e.g. Orcs are still hunter-gatherers while Humans progressed to agriculture ages ago, giving more time and resources to devote to other things such as inventions, the arts, and so on). Humans, to other Humans (always the baseline for comparison) are also on average considerably more attractive and charismatic than Orcs.

Given these parameters, describe the Orcs as seen from a Human perspective.
You are dooming humans to justified death by hundreds of other in-game species if these are your metrics.

Edit: Also, for a fun exercise, replace the word "human" with "European" and "orc" with many of the peoples that the Europeans colonized, enslaved, and imposed their imperial rule upon. The rhetorical parallels are striking.
 
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Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
So eating illiterate humans is fine?

That would be a sensible, albeit modest, proposal from a mindflayer emissary. "We understand your concern about us feeding over your most intelligent and productive society members. As a gesture of good-will, we propose that you send us 10 mentally deficient members of your race, that would be a burden on your primitive societies, in order for us to feed. It's bland and frankly, but we are willing to seek compromise as we're, obviously, extremely enlightened, especially compared to you. Or maybe you'd be OK if we went and ate the elves in the nearby wood?" Instant horror, credible motivation and a way for your heroes to understand that their opponents are not evil because of their diet. The onus to find an acceptable counter-proposal would be on them, or accept that, despite having a reasonable opponent not necessarily evil -- he was seeking to compromise after all -- his vital goals are incompatible with ours and therefore they must die as a species, without having to decide if any particular one is good or evil.
And none of this is to say that you couldn't or shouldn't use mind flayers as antagonists. They're great antagonists! And the potential analogy of how they see humans and how humans see non-human-animals is great! That just makes it smart horror. But the simplistic D&D alignment just doesn't work.

That.

As for mind flayers as villains - I think they make great villains.
Firstly - tentacles. Never trust anything with tentacles.

The squid and cephalopod community shakes with horror as they're forced in the kitchen to watch their lobster friend being boiled... ALIVE ! :ROFLMAO: Bonus points if the whole human family at the restaurant gathered around the fish tank to select which lobster they'll have cooked for them.


I think the Mind Flayer example makes a really good test bed for examining the process through which I tend to go through whenever I try to think of whether or not something is problematic.

1. Is this element using language or imagery that mirrors real world racism? Are there words like savage, lazy, stupid, primitive etc? If yes, then there may be a problem. If no, then move on to number 2.

2. Is the element using language or imagery that fetishizes the concept. IOW, is this element being used to promote a specific way of looking at something for the benefit of the viewer's personal wishes. If yes, then there may be a problem. If no, move on to number 3.

3. Is the element objectifying anyone or grounded in a specific group's fantasy? This is where the chainmail bikini and pin-up art runs into problems. If yes, then there may be a problem. If no, move on to number 4.

4. Is the element portrayed as being weak, subservient, and/or in need of guidance from another group? If yes, then there may be a problem. If no, move on.

Generally, that's the four steps that I walk through. Which is why I don't really have a problem with mind flayers. Relying on the in universe element of "Oh, well, it's an outsider/aberration/whatever" doesn't really fly since these are game terms and not really a good justification IMO. However, if you can get through all four of those criteria above without triggering any sort of bad smell on the sniff test, then it's probably fine. Mind flayers are not save or primitive, they are actually quite advanced, possibly even more advanced than the settings we use. They certainly aren't fetishized. Nor are they objectifying anyone in the art or presentation. They certainly aren't weak or subservient. So, they avoid all the big tropes that are at the heart of the issue.

The same can be said for a lot of the things that people try to raise up as issues. Dragons aren't a problem. Strong, super intelligent, powerful, they aren't, in any way, a racist trope that I can think of. There's a broad swath of the game that is perfectly fine. In fact, I'd go out on a limb and say that most of the game is fine. The game survived lots of changes and we still call it D&D. Shifting away from the bigotry and racist underpinnings of the genre will not somehow make D&D not D&D.

My test is quicker. If you ascribe generic qualities to all representatives of a gender, it's sexist, if you ascribe qualities to all representatives of a country, it's xenophobic, if you ascribe qualities to all members of a race, it's racist. They don't necessarily have to be "bad" qualities. "Women are good with children" is positive, yet sexist. "Indians are good with computers" or "Asians are hard-working and respectful of elder people" is xenophobic or racist, respectively. The concept of judging an individual based not on him, but on qualities ascribed to a group he's a member of is deeply problematic and the underlying mode of thought of racism/xenophobia. If you do that with orcs or mind flayers or whatever, you're emulating the racist mindset. You should first make sure that the creature in front of you is either not sentient and unable to make other choices (so you wouldn't need to discuss or redeem a xenomorph or a covid-19 strain) or actually guilty of the evil you're accusing them of. Or accept that you're killing them because it's fun and convenient (we generally do things in entertainment that we wouldn't endorse in real life and that doesn't have a weight on our morality).
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This is pretty bad.

For most of human existence, all humans have been hunter-gatherers, and many still are, without any connection to differences of intellectual capacity.
By providing a stable, reliable, and (over-)abundant source of food and resources, the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture paved the way for civilization as we know it by providing time and resources for people to do things beyond the bare necessities to survive.
If Orcs are capable of living as hunter-gatherers, and are capable of using language (which they clearly are), and are capable of worship (which they clearly are), and capable of using tools such as spears and shields (which they clearly are),
Agreed to here.
then they are obviously capable of building houses, living in cities, engaging in commerce, etc.
In a minor way, sure; but which hunter-gatherer society invented the aqueduct? Or paved roads? Or metalsmithing beyond the absolute most basic? None of these existed before agriculture allowed them to exist, and all allowed those societies to prosper where others didn't.

Same holds true in a game setting: agrarian societies are, over time, going to develop beyond what hunter-gatherer societies can manage; and unless the h-g's have a counter (in the case of Orcs, this counter would be sheer numbers and aggression) the h-g's are eventually doomed.
 

Simple. Different often equates to unknown, and things unknown are often seen as evil or untrustworthy until-unless proven otherwise.
'Seen as' is different than 'are'.

Indeed. But if we want to lay out that contrast such that the humans are simply better/more civilzed/smarter/etc. than the aliens (or, in D&D, some of the other PC-available creatures), how can we do it and not offend anyone in how we describe the aliens?

Humans are smarter than Orcs. Humans are more civilized than Orcs, largely due to their long-term greater intelligence giving them a "tech" and comfort advantage (e.g. Orcs are still hunter-gatherers while Humans progressed to agriculture ages ago, giving more time and resources to devote to other things such as inventions, the arts, and so on). Humans, to other Humans (always the baseline for comparison) are also on average considerably more attractive and charismatic than Orcs.

Given these parameters, describe the Orcs as seen from a Human perspective.
As already noted, humans have been hunter-gatherers for majority of their existence. In my current setting most of them still are. In this setting that is something orcs arguably are better at though. They're physically more powerful and more resilient. They're the sort of people who would wrestle down wild beasts for fun. And then eat them, so it would be useful too! They're very suited for hunter-gatherer lifestyle and thus predominantly prefer to live that way. Which is not to say that all of them do. Both of the PC orcs in my current campaign are originally 'city orcs', and have lived among humans, though one of them became disillusioned with that way of live and decided to return to the desert whence their ancestors came from and embrace the traditional orcish way of life.
 
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