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TLDR: What believable real-world consequences can there be for killing orcs, goblins, etc. when such acts are not illegal nor necessarily frowned upon by one's society?

I am preparing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign and would like to treat humanoid races (orcs, goblins, etc.) differently than usual. In Dungeons and Dragons these races are evil by nature and as such are often slaughtered to the last whenever encountered by player characters playing the 'good' races (humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes). As a person I find this disagreeable and as a player or game-master I find it boring.

What reasons could there be in a fantasy world for racial and cultural divides to not result in chance encounters being combats to the death? Note that I am not asking for a world where everyone gets along. I just want to create a setting where initiating combat with and killing sentient creatures is a non-trivial decision. If that's what they decide to do I'll allow it but there should be consequences (consequences, not punishment).

Some ideas I've been thinking about. Willing to modify or discard:

  1. Humanoids are not evil, they are merely different. However, the 'good' races may still view them as evil.
  2. Pantheons are not grouped by race. Good gods are worshiped by good creatures regardless of race, same goes for evil gods. Worshipers don't necessarily get along but good gods may frown upon wanton slaughter even of evil creatures.
  3. Ecology. Wiping out a goblin nest may cause unexpected problems for nearby human settlements. Haven't figured out a concrete example for this that doesn't feel contrived.
  4. Budding ideas of rights in 'good' society. I don't like this idea very much. If this happens at all in the game world I want the player characters, not myself, to introduce it.

I didn't put this in RPG stackexchange because this is about how the game world will work rather than about setting player expectations.

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    $\begingroup$ Why isn't this the norm? If anything you have to motivate why different "races" don't act like different people do and they usually don't kill each other on sight. "Why isn't everybody acting insane and violent and irrational" imo isn't a good question to ask. You don't ask how you can make a car that runs on fuel or a submarine for underwater either. Maybe it's me not being familiar at all with D&D. If this is the reason why this is so baffling, please edit in the rules of the game. You don't want to ask a question only people that play one specific game can answer. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Apr 15 '18 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 it's less about the rules than about how the races are described. There's nothing in the rules that say there has to be mass killing (or any killing at all) and there's nothing that says what I'm describing can't be done. Rather, orcs and goblins have always been described as evil, having evil societies and evil gods urging them to do evil things. You are right that the level of violence in D&D worlds can be insane, hence my question. I want to present players with something different that has a consistent internal logic $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 15 '18 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 sorry that wasn't clear. "have always been described" in D&D. I guess part of the reason is 'othering'. People don't kill each other on sight, but if you don't consider someone as 'people' then well, we have examples in history for that sort of thing. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 15 '18 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ My question is, what believable real-world consequences can there be for killing orcs, goblins, etc. when such acts are not illegal nor necessarily frowned upon by one's society. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 15 '18 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 happy to accept edits. I put the game in the title because that's where the trope is from, and as you point out it doesn't necessarily hold in other books/movies/games. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 15 '18 at 14:45

17 Answers 17

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I think The late Terry Prachett did it really well with his depiction of goblins - they were creatures who were considered to be dirty due to their tendancy to hoard their bodily wastes.

Another example might be the pak'ma'ra of babylon 5

In both cases you have a culture that is outwardly disgusting - and misunderstood. The goblins were seen as dirty until their ability to craft and make beautiful things was discovered. The pak'ma'ra were derided as eaters of carrion but were a key part of the story and were capable of beautiful things.

The trick really is to have a war of cultures based off misunderstanding. Goblins might be seen as vermin, but only really steal because they need to survive. Orcs might be at war with humans simply because their previous interactions have all been violent.

So specifically?

Humanoids are not evil, they are merely different. However, the 'good' races may still view them as evil.

Or rather that the races have been fighting so long that trust is hard. Orcs are tired of being nomadic since humans fear them so much any permanent settlement gets attacked. The nomadic orcs attack human settlements since they rely on raiding to survive.

Pantheons are not grouped by race. Good gods are worshiped by good creatures regardless of race, same goes for evil gods. Worshipers don't necessarily get along but good gods may frown upon wanton slaughter even of evil creatures.

Indiscriminate slaughter is counter productive(Youtube Lyrics Video). Maybe life itself is sacred, and taking of it without reason is against what the gods desire. Maybe we have a Rev Bem scenario where a normally bloodthirsty monster ends up being a pacifist.

Ecology. Wiping out a goblin nest may cause unexpected problems for nearby human settlements. Haven't figured out a concrete example for this that doesn't feel contrived.

Both examples I gave fill an ecological niche. Maybe your "low dirty creatures" are an effective form of waste processing.

Budding ideas of rights in 'good' society. I don't like this idea very much. If this happens at all in the game world I want the player characters, not myself, to introduce it.

You need an event. Maybe your party gets hired by a goblin chief to protect them from slavers. If folks discover an 'animal' is suddenly sentient and can communicate in a way we humans can understand, that changes a lot.

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    $\begingroup$ Love the idea of the party getting hired by goblins to protect them from slavers. Bonus points if it develops into a bit of an intrigue as to who hired them, which brings it back to the 'good' people you assumed would be good just because they're human. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Apr 16 '18 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer. I'll probably limit the number of humanoid races so I can flesh the ideas out better. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 16 '18 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Another example of the subverted trope is Deekin from Neverwinter Nights. The key here is personality: just as dehumanizing victims provides a "reason" for remorseless murder, humanizing them (attributing feelings, emotions, family connections and deep characterizations - especially those considered "good" ) will make the players less likely to resort to violence. $\endgroup$ – Denis Apr 16 '18 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ The ecology point here could be expanded further; perhaps the "good" races have discovered that if they collect their trash in landfills (basically just dumping in a concentrated area) the goblins will swarm the landfill and very efficiently process the waste, in the process making beautiful jewelry out of bone and other "waste" materials that they're willing to trade for shiny baubles (even trinkets such as polished bits of metal or faceted glass "gemstones"). $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Apr 17 '18 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ You could take it even further and say that if a roving band of humans slaughters a bunch of goblins, the goblins go into hiding, and then the landfills start to stink, which becomes quite noticeable in town when the wind shifts. Now you've disrupted this lovely little relationship and have a bunch of unhappy townsfolk who are suffering the olfactory repercussions of your party's wanton murder. Expect to become famous shortly thereafter -- wanted-poster-famous. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Apr 17 '18 at 14:09
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You eliminate the rewards

Why do players kill stuff? Because they want cool rewards and usually killing random monsters is the easiest way to get rewards.

Orc Currency

Right, your players just murdered the Orc Caravan and are ready to collect all their precious gold... Wait, what are those strange green coins?

Yes, Orcs have their own currency that most "Good" races consider worthless. Even the items the players could take from the Caravan are worth almost nothing since they are obviously of inferior-quality, made by those barbaric Orcs.

(As a bonus twist, make the items made by orcs on par with anything made by humans)

Orcs and Allies Factions

Now, you players have just murdered the Orc Trading Caravan, what happens next? Word is spread around about their deed.

Sure, they will get good reputation with some "Good" factions, but at the same time they will be known as murderers by any faction that is trying to help the Orcs and the Orcs themselves.

Experience

Who cares for gold anyway? The true reward are those sweet levels.

So, stop giving XP for kills.

I have been giving levels to my players for achieving history goals instead of defeating enemies, and as a result my players have been coming with solutions that don't revolve around killing everything in their path.

You need to live with yourself

People are defined by their action, so having your character murdering people may start turning the characters insane. Each time a player kills someone that is not attacking them, give them sanity damage.

Give a read on the sanity rules in Cthulhu D20 or similar books.

Moral

This is a Meta solution, but if your players like to roleplay let them know the kind of monsters they are for killing peaceful merchants.

Sure, you killed the big orc with the sword, behind him is a pair of orc children hiding in fear.

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  • $\begingroup$ These are really good. +++ for Sasha! $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 15 '18 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ A great answer, but a few of the points are written from a RP perspective. For example the point about XP only makes Worldbuilding sense if the world has a concept of XP. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Apr 16 '18 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs The OP mentioned a D&D campaing $\endgroup$ – Sasha Apr 16 '18 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Sasha: my point is that some bits are more about D&D than about the world the campaign is set in. ‘Don’t give them XP’ is purely about D&D while ‘Don’t give them more XP because Dee-Em, the all powerful God of Heroics (who likes to keep track of this sort of thing) doesn’t like cowardly murderers’ is about a world which just so happens to be the setting for a D&D campaign. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Apr 16 '18 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ I really like your answer. You could add showing the civilian side of orc tribes: a little child crying over the body of their murdered father or mother killed by the 'heroes', defenseless women and children running away in horror when the 'heroic adventurers' approach etc. $\endgroup$ – Alex2006 Apr 18 '18 at 13:51
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To do this you'd have to discard the default D'n'D "High Fantasy" settings and transfer to the "Low Fantasy":

There's no Good/Bad or Chaotic/Lawful alignment - there's just "us" and "them", the other race is "evil" not because of the word of god, but because they're different. They look differently, speak different language, have different culture and morals or maybe they just smell awfully bad(to us). There's also the case of limited resources and a history of conflicts that further reinforces alien attitude toward them - I bet your local rivaling lords fought many a battle together against the orcs/gobbos but never a battle together with orcs/gobbos against fellow Chris.. humans.

As to why initiating a combat against a pack of Orcs would not be a trivial monster mop up there could be many reasons:

  1. They're at least equal in strength to the party. It's not a "let's do another encounter", it's "I hope we don't have to fight, I'm not sure we can win this". Banner Saga plays a lot like this on harder difficulty levels.

  2. Status Quo or "we don't interact much apart from occasional raids or trades". What was the last time a human nation on Earth simply went out and murdered in cold blood a different group of people in times of relative peace or established status quo? As Raditz_35 pointed out in the comments it's not ok to just kill other sentient beings without a reason. A time of strife or War change that drastically but usually other means of resolving a conflict would be used first.

Basically you wouldn't go and kill a travelling Saracen in medieval France during a time of peace despite the fact that he's alien and your dad died fighting them at Acre. You'd insult him, mistreat him, cheat him or even accuse of wrong doing that he might have not commited but you wouldn't murder him.

  1. It's their territory: "we're in a forest with the biggest goblin population in Bohemia, I don't think spilling blood would be a good idea". Players disobey? Punish them with a punishing gobbo party that consists of seasoned gobbo warriors and local gobbo lord that will arrive several turns later and would pose a significant danger.
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    $\begingroup$ You certainly can have medium-to-high fantasy with alternate humanoid-sets.... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Apr 16 '18 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on why Low Fantasy lends itself better to these ideas? Is there something about High Fantasy that makes mass murder easier to justify? $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 16 '18 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ @jcm My guess would be that High Fantasy tends to be more manichean than low fantasy. Not that everything is fully good or fully evil - see LotR, a lot of time is spent examining characters whose good or evil is ambiguous, and what it means to be good or evil. But SOME things are still utterly evil, and the heroes are on a morally straightforward quest to defeat them. The key plot tension is "How/whether our heroes will accomplish their quest", not "should our heroes be on this quest in the first place". And that makes it easier to justify killing the evil obstacles to accomplishing the quest. $\endgroup$ – Oosaka Apr 16 '18 at 14:48
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Shades of Green and Pink

If you think the black and white good races vs. evil races thing is boring, you are in luck. It's your world and you can paint it in any shade you want. If one society has no laws against killing greenskins at will, create others with a different set of rules to show your players another way.

Create many different tribes or societies of the formerly evil races, from noble nomad types to baby-eating cannibals. Do the same for the "good" races. Have some murderous xenophobic elves and some seedy mercantile ones that will deal with any race. Have some dwarves who do not hate goblins and create harmless ogre (swamp) farmers among the more stereotypical ones.

Throw them together in interesting combinations

...and ask yourself how each of the groups would act if they were just more (human) people trying to make a life according to their needs and beliefs. Then apply their (racial) nature to the answer.

  • Encroaching human kingdoms have shrunk the orcs' wilderness to the point where they could not survive without conflict. But the orcs are now making a living in the human world: They hire out as mercenary bands to fight the human lords' wars for them. The orcs are still feared and despised by many, but the law protects them and customs have developed to minimize conflict when they travel through human towns and villages. These make for a good introduction on when not to attack on sight. Not only can these orcs deliver an epic beatdown, they will then deliver the party into the local Lord's care, who will be mightily pissed that his hired army got attacked.

  • Three nations in one: Humans in the valley, Elves in the forest and Goblins in the hills historically united to fight off darker forces. Centuries later, they still patrol and defend against incursions together. From this uneasy peace acceptance has grown and members of all three nations are now citizens of equal standing in the other two. Any of them would be horrified to hear of the murder of members of the other races.

  • An orc warlord has (in his domain) resettled human and elf refugees forced from their homeland by another orc warlord. Orc warbands are everywhere, but held in high regard by the refugees. The human and elf resistance is looking for adventurers to assist the orcs. Of course, any orc wearing the orange "rune-that-looks-like-an-ox-cart" is a vile enemy and can be slaughtered on sight.

  • Nomad tribes. In this harsh land, only honor counts. The tribes can be any mix of races, but they all live according to the same code. Stab someone in the face and you're fine, be it an orc, human, dwarf or elf. But stab someone after starting the trade-meet greeting and all will spit on your corpse.

Make them individuals

...like you already do for human characters. The heir of the orc warlord above may not care as much for the pink-skins, while an elf priest goes around inciting hatred of humans in the valley.

Keep in mind that the ones that don't fit the stereotype of their local race or tribe are the most likely to leave and live elsewhere. So put them in unexpected places where kill-on-sight is not an obvious choice. The innkeeper's buxom daughter is a half-orc, the nightwatchman at the city gate is an old, graying goblin (with great nightvision) and of course the tax collector is an elf because she is the only one around that speaks common, dwarf, goblin and ogre tongues.

I haven't mentioned the evil humans much, since there are plenty existing examples, but they also make for a good backdrop for an adventure assisting some peaceful/civilized/lesser-evil goblinoid society from the big bad evil.

When your party after many adventures ends up back in the society that has no laws against killing greenskins, will they still kill and loot orcs of the same tribe they fought alongside, or goblins whose relatives guided them through the mountain tunnels?

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    $\begingroup$ wow, this is a deep and amazing answer! I wish i could use these faction ideas if my world wasn't already so filled up. $\endgroup$ – skout Apr 18 '18 at 19:52
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The same reason conflicts between groups on earth became less common, the spread of literacy and trade makes people more open to those different than themselves. Trade can go a long way. Instead of "there is an orc caravan be ready for an attack", instead it is "there is an orc caravan I hope they have more of the chocolate stuff they had last time". You will still have conflict becasue there will always be bandits and pirates and nations at war but you get less ground level conflict.

It can even start small, during one particularly bad winter, goblins come out of the hills but both they and the human communities are too frozen and starved to fight so they end up cooperating, perhaps to scavenge a collapsed grain silo or hunt a particularly dangerous creature for meat. Works really well if their are lots of empty houses to be filled. Months later they realize the pink/green people may smell funny but the're just like us.

Later other communities realize how much better off the cooperating communities are, no raiding or marauding adventurers to put up with and a more diverse labor force.Or to take a different route maybe the cooperating communities are just better defended or better at raiding themselves. I once played around with the idea of goblin infantry backed by human (and thus much taller) archers or spearmen. All of a sudden your army is twice as effective. Some of the most effective armies in history mixed various specialized divisions. And nothing unites people like a common enemy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any ideas for unique items or services humanoids may provide? $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 16 '18 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ unique trade good are usually based on region, either through rare minerals , or unique plants or animals. differences on available materials is the basis of trade. Almost every trade good is based on this, the few that are not are based on different levels of technology (Fine China, Italian Glass, ect.) So really it depends on where your Orcs are, what that environment has. $\endgroup$ – John May 14 '18 at 19:59
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From the War Prayer, by Mark Twain:

O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst...

War is hell, unmitigated. All too often, people overlook the end result of the things that they believe to be true and necessary.

Confront your players with the necessary consequences of the things their society believes.

For generations, society has held the belief that goblins and orcs are fundamentally evil, devoid of the free will and kindness humans are capable of. To this end, the kind, free willed humans have been hunting them down and killing them for as long as anyone can remember. The things most people are running into at this point aren't raiding war-bands in their own eyes. They're resistance fighters, and they're here to end your imperialist hegemony or die trying. Maybe they are evil - now.

Things will happen in your world based on what people hold to be true.

The world is a big, big place. Somebody, somewhere in this place, is an orc/goblin sympathizer. They would have to operate carefully - if they rock the boat too hard, they'll be lynched by the same bands of 'adventurers' that take to the orc 'lairs' in search of the last vestiges of that society's belongings. The resistance will make an effort to hide and protect these people and their history, so that maybe one day, when the story gets told, the colonizers don't get to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

Don't forget that you get to set the tone.

The themes you are touching on are inherently an exploration of race in a fantasy setting. Game designers for years have known that the easiest way to keep this light was to introduce monsters - it's harder to draw parallels to the stories of indigenous peoples when the things coming after you explicitly worship a knowable, evil deity, without exception. You have the wonderful problem that the audience for your worldbuilding is sitting directly in front of you, playing with your creation. Read the room, and make sure everyone is having fun.

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  • PTSD for the human adventurers. The family at home doesn't understand why John Doe wakes up screaming every night, he "only" killed Goblins, after all.
  • Spot got caught in a Goblin trap. How to explain to little Johnny that his dog won't come home again, ever?
  • A "blue on blue" incident when the gate guard thought Jane looked a little too green and pointy-eared. They swear it was the bad light.
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As long as the 'monsters' aren't significantly weaker than the humans, the main consequence is the risk of revenge attacks and war.

An occasional raid to steal farm animals, get some gold, etc, by either side is acceptable, and could even a be a rite of passage for young males. However this is mostly a 'heist' type situation where killing sentient beings, especially non-warriors, is seen as a failure. Getting the goods and escaping unseen across miles of enemy territory is the name of the game. However if a fight does happen it's between soldiers and each side takes their chances. If anyone wants revenge, they can go on their own raid to count coup against the foe without leading to a war.

But if a group goes into the Orc or Goblin territory to murder and makes it out alive, a month later a warband is going to head into human lands and ransack a village. If the so called adventurers kill someone important or massacre a large number of people, the avenging warband won't stop it's own attack until the whole countryside is in flames or a whole city has been sacked.

Thus anyone who speaks up about going into goblin and orc lands to murder quickly gets a talking to by the local militia, if they're smart they'll leave said talks with a few bruises. If the adventurers do manage to go out and kill the goblins and orcs, come back covered in green blood and expect to be hailed as heroes, they'll find themselves beaten, stripped naked and left chained up at the border as an apology to the local orcs and goblins.

Thus peace is kept and both sides can live in relative safety.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting idea. Local militia may not like goblins or orcs, but they don't want a war. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 16 '18 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ @jcm yep. Too make things more interesting, the kingdom could be interested in giving the Orcs a good fight, and stories and songs encourage it. But that's in the distant capital, on the frontier they really want to keep things calm. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke Apr 16 '18 at 12:53
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If orcs and goblin can kill people, killing them will be frowned upon because it will bring swift revenge on the whole human community. Sort of an enforced morality.

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I would base it on racial divides. An Orc might be more prone to using violence in a simple argument for example. Not lethal violence that kills, but violence nonetheless. This causes prejudice that Orcs are violent psychopaths, while the Orcs are a bit iffy about the humans that set an Orc neighbourhood on fire during the night because of those prejudices.

The lionshare of Orcs, Humans and other creatures wouldnt be going to bash eachother's skull in, but have a large amount of distrust with lots of segregation in an attempt to prevent escalation. This distrust wouldnt be wrong, as an Orc kid beating up another kid of another race is a big risk, and each race would have traits that the others wouldnt understand or know how to deal with.

Most community living relatively close to other species (or living together) would need to set up rules to prevent escalation. Even though hate and prejudice might run rampant, anyone actively increasing the divide by murdering a bunch of a particular race would feel the consequences, even though a portion of the other races might want to reward you for it.

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Plenty of people in real life hate each other and would see each other dead, but don't kill each other. The main reason for this is that it's illegal. The other reason is that it would cause more violence.

Starting with the second, maybe this world has seen the horrors of large scale war between nations, and has no interest in repeating it. In a normal fantasy setting, when you kill an orc his cousin shows up angry in act II. In your setting, the orcs don't send his cousin: they send an army. They will burn crops, raze settlements and kill anyone in their way, because they are a sovereign nation with a right to bring you to justice.

This works even better if some form of superweapon exists. Mutually Assured Destruction is a weird solution, but it does work pretty well. Maybe the races have engineered or discovered plagues that would wipe their enemies out. Maybe their gods could corporealize as titans that could sink a continent. Maybe they just have really big bombs.

This is also why it would be illegal: if you hold your own accountable, the orc army won't have to do it themselves.

This gives you some really interesting dynamics to play with. Deep in the interior, people who have never even seen an orc think we should grow a pair and exterminate them. Along the frontier, a folk hero with a populist bent pushes for a show of force. The players are forced to choose between an innocent man hanging for a crime that he didn't commit and the potential fallout of breaking an accused orc-slayer out of an orc prison. Humanoids are forced to act as diplomats for jealous, angry gods prone to destructive tantrums. Orcs following a human religion (a capital crime among their own) seek refuge in a human city, and the orc clans want them handed over.

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Your problem is your players' expectations of the world you're building and the game you're going to run. Killing goblins if a fundamental DnD trope/game mechanic. The world is built to make this morally justified, manageable and rewarding. There are many ways in which that worldbuilding can be changed so that "killing goblins" is no longer the straightforward go-to game mechanic it is, but you will need to make those changes clear to your players, and even then they might not realize the implications, because killing goblins is such a basic and iconic DnD game mechanic it might not occur to them the changes you made go that deep. Here are some examples of how the changes you propose could be misinterpreted by players who expect to play a standard kill-the-monsters DnD campaign:

1 - Humanoids are not evil, but my race sees them as evil. Therefore killing them is elementary role-playing.

2 - That one actually seems pretty good to me. Notice however that it is closely related to 4; it's just the gods deciding everything has a right to life instead of "good" society or the players themselves.

3 - Ecological consequences will only show up in the long-term, and they might not catch the relationship unless you make it explicit - and even if they do catch it, it wouldn't necessarily make them less likely to kill goblins; they can just handle the consequences when they happen. It might even incentivize killing goblins if the consequences give them the illusion that killing the goblins moved the plot along...

4 - The players are unlikely to introduce that concept unless they're exactly on the same page as you are and are willing to impose their view on your world. You put them in a DnD world to play a DnD game, "rights" just aren't part of the equation. It's like hoping for players to introduce communal property in a game of Monopoly. I'm sure it happens, players like to bend the games they play in many directions, but most people who play a game are going to go by its rules and conventions, and even if they want to do different they're unlikely to do it on their own unless they're happy ruining the experience for all other players that were on a different page.

I can think of an additional thing that could discourage blanket killing:

5 - Make humanoids too dangerous to attack. In this hyper-violent society where different races kill each other on sight, nobody goes out alone and nobody goes out unarmed. Just make the relevant encounters too high-level for fighting to be a viable solution. Note that this STILL requires making things explicit with the players, because they might think the point is to find smarter ways of fighting those encounters.

I think I have two general points given all this:

1) You don't want your players to kill their enemies on sight, and it sounds like it's not just a game mechanic thing for you, it's a moral/ethical/worldbuilding issue: you don't want humanoid death to be cheap in your world. But that does mean getting into "rights", either explicitly or implicitly. You are making a world where every humanoid has an intrinsic dignity and right to life, because you're the one creating it and it's how you see things. So either you create a world in which this dignity is accepted - like the gods punishing people for wanton murder, or the good societies having non-DnD moral codes of all humanoids having a right to life - or you create a world in which it isn't, but you want your player's characters to act as if it is, meaning you have to contrive a situation that will make the situation clear to them - like making them the oppressed minority whose right to life isn't acknowledged, or like another user suggested giving them quests that are specifically about standing up for other's rights. Otherwise it's a bit like inviting people to play slave-owners in the antebellum South and expecting them to spontaneously role-play as abolitionists.

2) Whatever you do, it needs to be extremely clear to your players that they aren't going to be killing people gratuitously in your campaign. Whether you straight up say that's what you're going for, or make it obvious in the presentation of the world ('After the race wars ended in an uneasy stalemate with none able to get the upper hand, peaceful trade slowly resumed, with different groups of races avoiding each other except under specific circumstances and almost never attacking each other, from fear of retaliation and more war. This made wild beasts the main danger wandering travelers had to fear...'), unless you are very certain that they are on the same page as you already as far as playstyle goes.

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    $\begingroup$ Your headline point is not necessarily true -- as a DM who subverts racial tropes on a regular basis, one can quite readily establish acceptable targets using other means than race/speciation. $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Apr 16 '18 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ I think this answer I think addresses the gameplay issue more than the worldbuilding. Still very helpful. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 17 '18 at 12:51
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One way to subvert the trope in your world is to make the trope not true in your world.

It's a bit of a silly trope to begin with. Humans and elves and dwarves are considered to be the "good" races, but if you read the source texts, especially The Silmarillion, you'll see individuals from all three races behaving in clearly unethical ways and who are no better than any orc.

On the other end, have some orcs who live by sheep-herding or smithing instead of by pillaging, and while they may not like humans all that much, and certainly won't let their daughter marry one, are able to farm a plot of land next to a human's plot of land without a fight breaking out every time the two neighbors lay eyes on each other.

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  • $\begingroup$ Re: your last example, can you differentiate this from just making orcs reskinned humans? $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 17 '18 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ Given the vast array of ideas among humans, not really. Everything we might think of as being an "orcish value" will very likely be found in real-world human culture. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Jun 8 '18 at 2:30
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I think that your number 3 idea could be very interesting if expanded upon. If your adventurers wipe out a group of goblins close to a village, that will certainly have consequences, probably good and bad.

Primarily the village and goblins will probably share a food source. If the goblins are no longer around, then it might mean that the local deer population begins to thrive. This might mean that there are too many deer and they have started eating the crops of the local villagers, causing a food shortage. It could also cause other predators that hunt deer to appear in greater numbers, causing a greater threat to the village.

On the other hand, now that there are more deer, it could cause the village to prosper, attracting hunters and allowing a larger population to be supported, turning it into a trading hub. The expanding size would allow more opportunities, but also more crime, and might push the local farmers out from their homes.

So rather than just saying to your players that they should value the life of all humanoid races, make them realize that any large actions that they take to upset the status quo will cause changes in the environment, and that they can't predict whether they will be good or bad.

Whilst not necessarily causing them to stop killing "evil" races, it will certainly cause them to stop and think about what their actions might cause further down the road, and make them realize that the existence of such races is not an inherently bad thing.

Whilst they may still choose the option to slaughter everyone, they should also realize that when they do this, things will certainly change, so maybe a diplomatic solution would be best.

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(trying not to repeat already good points)

"I just want to create a setting where initiating combat with and killing sentient creatures is a non-trivial decision."

The problem in RPG is not "evil", but irrational attacking everything in sight. Both sides can be as evil as they want, but that does not have to lead to fight. What if a rational orc hunting party noticed a group of well armed adventurers? (groups of orcs that were attacking everything against all odds were already weed out by natural selection) Both sides see the same problem - risk high, reward limited. Both sides would defend if attacked, both sides hate the other, both sides would draw swords to show the other not to mess with them... but actually no one really want to start a bloody fight.

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Murdering other sentient beings is simply illegal Players go on an orc-killing spree and suddenly they’re the outlaw serial killers with bounties on their heads: not the orcs.

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  • $\begingroup$ Soldiers are not considered serial killers. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Apr 17 '18 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Sasha Adventurers aren’t soldiers. They’re heavily armed wanderers with a penchant for killing and thievery. $\endgroup$ – Richard Cosgrove Apr 17 '18 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ Why would it be illegal? Did the law exist because of or in spite of societal attitude? $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 17 '18 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ @jcm Why wouldn’t it be illegal? Especially in a lawful society. $\endgroup$ – Richard Cosgrove Apr 17 '18 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardCosgrove Adventurers would be closer a PMC, it would be like wanting Black Water to be responsible for everyone they killed. $\endgroup$ – Sasha Apr 17 '18 at 13:52
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Hmm... I feel like that as well. Perhaps take a leaf from the Inheritance Cycle, esp. books 3-4, where the 'monsters' are not just misunderstood, but were manipulated by the Big Bad.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you give some examples of consequences of indiscriminate monster-slaying in those books? $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 15 '18 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ Well, do you want any spoilers? $\endgroup$ – Andrew Blake Apr 15 '18 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ I don't mind, but others might so just put them in spoiler tags. $\endgroup$ – jcm Apr 15 '18 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ How do you do that? $\endgroup$ – Andrew Blake Apr 15 '18 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ You can write ">!" without the quotation marks at the start of a line to use spoiler markdown. There is also a little help box at the top of the box where you write your post that can help you with markdown. You can also specifically address other users that have interacted with a post (for example by editing or writing comments) by writing an "@" in front of their username. If they have commented it even autocompletes the username. One person can be notified per comment and the OP is additionally notified every time there is a new comment. You might be interested in tour and help center.Have fun $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Apr 16 '18 at 8:19

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