Humans are weaker than dwarves, and certainly can’t build like Dwarves build. Humans are clumsier than elves, and didn’t have the millennia-long head start they had. Humans aren’t nearly as clever as gnomes. IDK, maybe humans beat the hobbits. But Hobbits were tied up fighting dragons, and they are too shy to dominate anyway.
But logically speaking, it really doesn’t hold up that humans inherited the planet in virtually every major fantasy property. Sure, humans reproduce like bunny-men and we can adapt to pretty much every environment, but even goblins and kobolds have humans beat in that regard, so reproduction and adaptability clearly isn’t the sole differentiator.
Still, it’s not so bad, right? Humans certainly have that middle ground thing going on. While humans don’t have the obvious strengths of others races, humans don’t have their faults either. So *maybe* it makes sense for humans to end up as the dominant race?
No, it really doesn’t. Because there’s one race out there that beats humans in EVERY way, and that’s the ORCS.
Just think about those bad mothers. Orcs are bigger than humans. They have more muscle, and sharp teeth to boot. They are tough as nails. They can see in the dark. They reproduce even faster than us, and can inhabit just about anywhere.
Sure, Orcs may be portrayed as slightly dim, but I’m sure we all know lots of humans who aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs. (I’m not saying, I’m just saying.)
Orcs are the toughest. So why aren’t Orcs in charge?
So why aren’t the orcs in charge? What do humans have that can compete with orcs?
One word: civility.
(I mean, maybe. IDK. This is all imaginary fantasy after all. But weep not for nerd culture journalism, dear readers. For it is already dead. As proof, I’m about to share an imaginary rationale for how humans have come to dominate imaginary orcs, and it’s super duper amazeballs.)
Orcs live in tribes and warbands. In most fantasy settings like the Forgotten Realms of D&D or Pathfinder’s Golarion seem to have a pretty sizable population of orcs, but they are all spread out. Meanwhile, humans gather in more “civil” villages, towns, and cities.
This gives humans infrastructure on their side. Elves and dwarves are more likely to trade and ally with a civil people than a tribal people, meaning that humans already have an advantage in forming alliances.
Orc culture prevents them from starting cities. Orcs have a culture built around showing off individual strength. This means interdependence is shunned for personal independence. But cities are built around the concept of specialization, of every individual doing their part in support of the whole. A baker doesn’t need to know how to use a sword, and a candle stick maker doesn’t need to know what plants are poisonous, because they rely on others for that information or expertise.
To humans, that’s a necessity to keep a civilized city running. To an orc, that’s a weakness, so they aren’t going to build no stinking city. (Well, except for World of Warcraft orcs, which are a whole different beast.)
Orcs would need a lot of food to maintain their metabolism. In fact, they would need a LOT of food to maintain their large frames and high reproduction rate. So do they breed a lot of cattle and settle down in a pastoral lifestyle? Nah, that’s not an Orc’s style.
A small piece of land just cannot sustain alot of orcs. So for orcs to exist, they would need to be skilled raiders (which they are). But this puts them ever in conflict. And even if they go on a winning streak, the system only works if there are functioning civilized societies nearby to raid. But the wheels fall off the system should the orcs ever outnumber the humans, as that would leave them with few opportunities for raiding.
Meanwhile, cultural life became increasingly important for humans. The real (not fantasy) research by Tanya Smith of Harvard University revealed that modern human childhoods became longer than those of Neanderthals by studying the teeth of Neanderthal children. In short, it was found that Neanderthals had a much reduced opportunity to learn from their parents and clan members.
While Neanderthals had a live fast and die young society, modern humans have moved to a live slow and grow old strategy, which has helped us become the dominate species on the planet. Indeed, we learn and improve, then pass those learnings on to subsequent generations who build upon that knowledge. Not so with orcs.
Honestly, orcs just fight too darned much. Discourse, compromise, negotiation, and decency are traits that serve as a bit of cultural glue, holding people together in healthy ways. Don’t believe me? Read a full comments section on Huffington Post, then try not to imagine that in a just universe, many of those commenters would fairly be vaporized into a cloud of wrongness that would briefly coalesce above their keyboards, only to mercilessly be blown away into the domain of limbo.
I guess I just compared orcs to internet trolls, which severely mixes metaphors, but you know what I mean. Orcs just fight too darned much and that has always and definitively placed a cap on their cultural progress.
And fantasy tropes need them. Orcs are stronger, tougher sons of guns than pretty much anyone around them, but they will always get their butts handed to them because they need to be used as cannon fodder. An entire species of warriors is one of the most thrilling tropes from science fiction and fantasy.
Orcs are bred only for combat, with a culture based entirely on war and destruction, and a single-minded focus on slaughter, which means that orcs will show up in a lot of different stories in a lot of different forms. But despite their martial prowess, they will almost always be relegated to the level of cannon fodder because the heroes need a foil.
Further, duplicitous bad guys will sometimes throw a giant army of orcs at the good guys, who might seem afraid of the threat, but they know the dwarves and elves are just a message spell away. Even when it seems like the orcs might win, the good guys will come out on top every time, even as they are out-manned and out-speared.
Because that’s what happens when you charge into battle without much strategery. As it turns out, it’s not too hard to out-strategize a disorganized mob that only fights one way and lacks the civility to form proper alliances or build supporting infrastructure.
A few sources might handle orcs with a little more depth but most don’t bother to dig much deeper than the warring brute. Plus, let’s not root too heavily for the orcs. Remember, we need them for the XP.