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In my world the south of the mountains is the crumbling empire, here orcs where driven out long ago, apart from a few mercenary bands and such.

North of the mountain is the steppe, this grasland is what a strong human khanate calls home.

Given this setup, how can the orcish tribes also live on the steppe without becomming subjugated by the horse nomads of the khanate? There is no problem if some orcs are subjugated but most of them should not be.

Orcs in this world are 7 foot tall, heavily muscled and good warriors. They are notorious raiders (as are the human steppe tribes) and rarely live in groups of over 500 orcs. There is no orc nation, all groups are independent.

So how do I explain why the orcs and human nomads can cooexists (and having done so for generations) instead of having subjugated or driven the other out?

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  • $\begingroup$ Sorry english is not my native language, will edit. $\endgroup$ – lijat Jun 24 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ Dont change "treath" though. I want that to be a new word. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 24 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Storybuilding is off-topic. What rule or system of your world are we discussing? Are you asking how to develop your orcs to be better warriors? Are you asking how to develop your human government such that that orcs can take advantage of it? What's your worldbuilding question? $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 24 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ How can two tribes of different fantacy races cooexist in the same barren grassland? $\endgroup$ – lijat Jun 24 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ i think you answer your question yourself, "mercenary" and "raiding" the khan use them as the source of force for his raid, especially walled one, judging by the orc build they seems fitting for that. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jun 24 at 20:38
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Orcs mostly hunt. And orcs are better neighbors than the alternative.

The grasslands are big. The is enough grass for the herds of the Khan and his people. There is enough grass for megaherbivores like bison and mammoths.

The orcs hunt the latter and follow them from place to place, living off the herd. The raw physicality of the orcs makes them fine hunters of the megaherbivores.

The steppe tribes also migrate, but in an opposite pattern. They try hard to stay a steppe ahead of the bison and mammoths. Their goats and sheep cannot compete with the mighty beasts and so the humans clear out when the herds arrive with the orcs in their wake.


Occasionally some half-smart orc chieftain decides to go after the easier picking of the humans and their little animals. The Khan does come down on these orcs, wiping them out.


The orcs make reasonable neighbors and are also generally farther to the south than humans. Farther south than that are other things which would make much less good neighbors. But to get into the human lands these things have to get past the orcs first. The orcs are a valuable buffer between human dominated lands and the monsters which live in the southerly jungles.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is some conflict in your answer, are the Orc reasonable neighbors, or do they hunt humans and their animals? $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 24 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex - can it be both? How about the orcs are predictable. The Khan expects his human subjects to be prudent and steer clear. An occasional mishap is understandable. Systematic depredations by orcs will not be tolerated. As regards the orcish raiding skills I refer you to (so far) unspecified denizens of points south. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 24 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ Many good answers, accepting this as the megafauna hunting is excelent. $\endgroup$ – lijat Jun 25 at 13:33
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One word: symbiosis.

The orcs depend on the Khan for something they can't make or obtain for themselves (the extra large horses they need for their raids?), and the Khan depends on the orc tribes being independent for something (say, deniable activities like raids on what's left of the old Empire).

The orcs get their (stuff), at least most of the time, and the Khan gets a share of loot as well as a bargaining position, in which he sets himself up to become the Protector -- the one man who stands between the raiding orcs and the decadent core of the Empire.

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Based on your story, the Orc's have a unique ability (which I think should be worked into an essential role for the human population). Smaller groups (in terms of power) tend to get taken advantage of if they have no means to defend themselves, which is why the warrior/ violent potential ability is what I think you should focus on.

For example, if they live on the edges of civilization, they would likely act as a barrier from groups who would like to attack the Khan. Another possibility is that they would take contracts for bounties that the humans deem as indecent.

If you wanted to go less aggressive with their race, you would still need to give them access to power that allows them to stay autonomous. The Orcs may be advanced at smithing, or produce a product like Orc Juice™ that is valuable to the Kahn military, which generates the power of the orcs through currency.

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Don't Poke the Bear

The orc-lands are vast but there is no supreme leader. The tribes war with each other as much as with us. So the tribes on our border are busy fighting the guys behind them. As long as our border cities have proper walls and defenses to repel a few dozen troops at a time, the orcs are not much of a problem.

The last time we tried to wipe them out, the orcs tribes rallied into a massive WAAAGH! that rampaged to the South and destroyed our army and three of our cities before it hit the King's River. Unable to cross, cohesion broke down and with no enemy present most of the orcs died through a combination of starvation (they had no supply trains) and infighting.

Since Orcs are such prolific breeders, by the time we had rebuilt our army and cities, the orc-lands had repopulated and gone back to fighting each other as though nothing had happened.

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The Orcs are notoriously hard to pin down

Orc tribes are nomadic and drive great herds of giant gazelles (which are also used as mounts) from fertile area to fertile area to avoid overgrazing. They move fast and have no permanent settlements. When close to human territory, young males like to raid, even at the risk of death - it is kind of a rite of passage, and the older males don't mind, since it leaves more young females for them.

When the Khan sends out troops for retribution or extermination, the tribes just move away, having received early warning from their lookouts. Their gazelles are faster than horses, and the Orcs themselves are capable of running long distances at a good pace, while horses require frequent rest. Hunting orcs is a very frustrating experience. The grasslands are so vast that any organised attempt at conquest is impossible - orc tribes can easily slip through gaps or weak points in any front line.

Compounding the problem is that Orcs breed a lot and mature quickly (say, 8 years from birth to maturity), hence replacing losses quickly. Typically, numbers are kept down through warfare between tribes, trying to steal gazelles or young females. There is, however, a maximum feasible size of tribes of about 500. Once a tribe reaches this size, it tends to split into two, often peacefully, at other times as a result of attempted coups against the ruling chief. Ar any rate, if the Khan begins to kill off a lot of Orcs, the tribes are perfectly able to keep the peace between each other and concentrate on killing humans instead. Losing two or three Orcs for every human enemy killed is seen as acceptable, since it takes far longer to resupply human armies through breeding. Long-term campaigns against Orcs have been tried in the past, but have been lost due to attrition. It is better in the long term to simply defend settlements against raids and accept whatever losses are incurred.

Some Orcs choose to serve the Khan as mercenaries, even against their own kind, but tribal Orcs look down on these mercenary Orcs, who tend to mainly be outcast for some crime or another. Serving an inferior species is very low status.

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Both sides respect the others fighting mettle. They are long-term allies who help each other against mutual enemies. Powerful oaths mean they will not betray each other.

In particular, the khanate has no great interest in conquering the orcs who are a useful buffer against their foes. The orcs occupy low-grade grassland which is not greatly valued the khanate is happy to leave them to it.

The orcs have no motive to attack nomadic neighbours with no towns, villages or cities to pillage, and who are too mobile to properly fight anyway.

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Orcs might be notorious raiders, but they damn well know that attacking the Khan's settlements will spell their doom. After all, the Khan has made a terrifyingly cruel example of the Orc tribes who did attack his settlements.

This way, Orcs pose no real threat. If an Orc tribe does fall out of line, they'll be the next example.

At the same time, the steppes are vast, with few strategically important locations such as mountains providing good vantage points. This makes the land hard to defend against smaller raiding parties for the Khan, unless he wants to spread his forces. Easy for the Empire to send a few detachments in, cut supply lines... if it wasn't for Orcs, who are more than happy to test their mettle against soldiers flying the Empire flags, as this means fighting without the nightmarish repercussions.

In conclusion:

The Khan isn't bothered by the Orcs since they know he isn't to be trifled with, so he has no reason to spend precious resources hunting them down, he even profits from their existence in his realm.

The Orcs are scared of the Khan, but they can live off the land and satisfy their bloodlust by raiding other Orc tribes and clashing with the occasional Empire scouting party.

Everyone wins. Except for the Empire.

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I'm assuming your arid steppe is based closely of central Asia. You know what also dominates central Asia? Great mountains, especially at the edge of te steppes. So your Orcs are masters at fortifications and metallurgy. The orcs aren't from the south of the mountains, they're from the mountains. They spread far and wide and are now pushed away from the mountains and their southern lands.

They're seven feet of pure muscles. They use this to climb the mountains, hew stone and dig up ore. Orcs excel as drawing resources from the earth. When a clan of orcs settles in an area they start by making an open-pit mine. From there they draw stones for fortifications and later ore for their metalworking. If the steppe is more of a hot desert creating underground living quarters makes a lot of sense.

Basically orcs live in small stone forts. They often raid each other, men need wealth to afford a bride from another fort. A young orc who can't inherit a trade from his father, who's family lacks wealth is pushed to take it by force.

The khan doesn't care. The khan leads a cavalry force, cavalry struggles against fortification. Of all the steppe nomads only the Mongols managed to reliably besiege fortifications. Besides the orcs bring metalworking to their lands. If there's one thing the steppe nomads struggled with it was a reliable source of good metal. You can't pack a forge on a horse. So the orcs provide metal, weapons, armor etc. While hiding in their fortified homes, this makes them an unattractive target.

The southern empire doesn't struggle as much with their infantry. Hence the orcs got expelled from the south.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for combining fortifications and selling metal to the khan $\endgroup$ – lijat Jun 25 at 10:59
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It would be too costly in human/horse lives for the Khan to attack a tribe of orc (if the defending orcs inflict 2 or 3 times the losses they take to the attackers, that's thousands of dead soldiers for each tribe they wipe out)

Same goes the other way around, if orc tribes were to attack the Khanate, they would be heavily outnumbered, and hit-and-run tactics probably wouldn't work against expert raiders on horseback.

So they cohabit, from a safe distance away. Tension rises as more and more space in the steppes is occupied and people/orcs start to live closer and closer...

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