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Orcs are typically depicted as being extremely warlike creatures. With their average intelligence slightly lower than humans. But they have more physical advantages such as superior strength and constitution.

And since they have such a warlike culture, all of their resources and "orcpower" are directed towards warring other races or each other.

So obviously they would advance more in the realm of making war than any other cultural realm such as agriculture, industry, economics, etc. Unless it helps them make war better.

And since they are so dedicated to making war, they would obviously see the benefits of heavy armor. Individually, there would be less risk of injury and death, and so they would feel freer to throw themselves at the enemy. And as a commander, you would want fewer losses, higher morale for your troops, and knowing they won't hold back. Add that to the fact that they would be fighting almost constantly, so they would want as little risk of death and injury as possible.

So with the fact that these advantages in mind, why would orcs not wear heavy armor?

I'm looking for cultural reasons. I realize there will be exceptions and some orcs will still opt for heavy armor. But I want a reason that would make it be a cultural thing for orcs to wear less armor.

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    $\begingroup$ The why is simple. Freshly laundered terrycloth bath robes. The thick ones, like spas use. "Warlike" doesn't mean they're masochists. God help them if they ever discover 500 television channel cable, they'll become extinct within a generation. Especially if the get hooked on TNT's never-ending Law & Order marathon. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Aug 18 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Have you felt what normal Orc skin is like? For an Orc to wear armor is like for a human to wear wet tissue paper. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 19 at 7:59
  • $\begingroup$ It would be useful to look into the cultures of Celts and Germans, arguably the orcs of Europe. Like your orks, society was structured around those who go on raids and bring back spoils and slaves and like your orks, they had preference for fighting without armor, even naked. In fact, Romans famously used swords instead of pikes despite being an inferior weapon, because agile, slashing sword is better against unarmored barbarians than long but unwieldy pike. $\endgroup$ Aug 19 at 9:50

12 Answers 12

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Berserkers:

Lots of historical peoples used little or no armor. Armor slows you down, especially if your fighting technique involves lots of rapid motion and wild attack. Armor is for people who are sober, practical, practice good logistics, and do a lot of careful planning. You know, wimps.

The peoples who most frequently are shown not wearing armor are folks like berserkers. Their sheer disregard for personal safety was terrifying. If they were coming at you, you knew that they weren't going to stop coming till one of you was dead, or you ran away. In that moment of enemy attack, the idea of running away sounds pretty good. And once your carefully arranged battle line starts to crumble, all the advantages of that nice, sober, practical plan evaporate in the face of people who clearly are NOT going to retreat no matter what you do.

Armor is expensive. Armor requires lots of upkeep. Try swinging a battle-axe in armor, then try it in street clothes. Then do the same thing after going on a twenty mile hike in 40 lbs of armor carrying a two-handed sword.

Your orcs may have a preponderance of fast-twitch muscles allowing hysterical strength. Like great apes, they can use more of their muscle at once. The cost is endurance. Everything that makes your orcs exert themselves over time weakens the army (my suggestion is to use mounted warriors, who ride to battle but fight on foot). So it's better to have a big weapon and splatter the enemy than try to outcompete an endurance species like humans in an endurance challenge. That also means that when orcs fight each other, their massive weapons smash any armor to bits.

Besides, how are your enemies going to see how ripped your muscles are if you are wearing armor? Who is going to see how you have a third nipple which denotes power and potency? Maybe your warriors get a tattoo every time they kill an enemy. How will they know what a savage killer you are if they can't see the tats and know you've killed ten men?

They may be well endowed (or imagine themselves to be) and go into battle naked to intimidate enemies and impress the females who are shooting arrows at the enemy from the rear (someone's gotta do it). The female orcs aren't impressed with your codpiece, and this way they see you in all your glory.

In fact battle might have deeply sexualized meaning to orcs, who view armor as feminine (and from most accounts, orcs have a rape culture). They bring gifts of armor back to females, who wear it in battle. The males despise armored opponents, and may even find the sight of armored warriors to be arousing (enhancing their battle frenzy).

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    $\begingroup$ yes but I can't really see all of one race being beserkers. Otherwise, +1 $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 18 at 1:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Firestryke Traditionally, you might have berserker shock troops, followed by more practical, sober troops to grind down the enemies once you frightened the crap out of them. But the Celtic Scots collectively fought very much like this - using terror and intimidation against practical enemies. Hadrian's wall was Rome's response; wall off the problem so they come down and try to kill everyone. So yes, a whole race could collectively adopt this as a strategy, especially with species genetics enforcing the tendencies. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 18 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ Ok Ive seen your edits, and I definitely can accept this answer. I was thinking of even making to where some orcs have those crazy bursts of strength, and others have more consistent strength, making them better archers $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 18 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ Side notes: historically archers were your strongest warriors, not your weakest. It is actually way less difficult to swing a battle axe than it is to draw back a >150lb warbow; so, a female's display of strength in her use of the bow could be just as significant as the male's display of courage. That said, I really like your idea about feminizing armor. The Romans found pants (practical as they were) effeminate; so, real men only wore dresses, and this solution seems to mirror that. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 18 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki yes I realized that fact shortly after posting my comment $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 18 at 20:39
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Pure biological physics.

Pound for pound a chimpansee or gorilla has far more strength than a human. This is because of the type of muscles they have compared to ours. They have far more fast-twitch type muscles which gives them far greater strength. The classical Orc would likely have similar composition, making them far superior in strength.

The disadvantage of those muscle types is that they sacrifice coordination and especially endurance compared to the slow-twitch type muscles that humans have so much off. These muscle types are the reason we can jog for hours on end (if trained).

When in combat your Orcs cannot afford an extended engagement. They don't have the stamina to fight for a long time. Their tactics have to be focused on engaging quickly, overpowering their enemies with sheer force and then hoping they can retreat and catch rest before the next engagement. This explains their agressiveness, brutality and their lack of armor. Armor is simply too tiring for them to wear. The typical brutality and agressiveness are symptoms of this because any hesitating during combat simply drains their energy.

Edit: only now do I realize that in part this answer is already present in the currently accepted post.

To further diversify my answer: the lack of coordination impacts their ability to build weapons and armor. That is why their weapons are often so much more crude, and their armor almost non-existant. It is too difficult to make properly fitting armor.

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The enemy has access to strong weapons

No point in wearing armor if a pesky mage can bypass it with a level one spell. Anti-magic armor might still be useful, but it is too expensive to equip a whole army.

If you can get rid of the mages (fight in a no-mana zone), then the ******* elves will pierce your armor with longbows and crossbows. Yes, there is a lot of controversy about whether plate armor can shrug off longbow and crossbow shots. But it takes just one arrow going through to prove that they can go through. No, really. It doesn't matter if only one out of ten arrows go through, in war you are going to be expecting volleys.

Even if the arrows wouldn't piece through, they would still give you quite the punch, which hurts, and bend the armor. You will need to adjust strategy to avoid being shot anyway, so the armour just makes you a slower target.

And if that was not enough discouragement, dwarves and gnomes have found out that if you put a small amount of explosive powder into a pipe with a ball of steel on top of that you get a musket. Those will make armour obsolete real quick.

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  • $\begingroup$ well, Ik for a fact that good plate will shrug off arrows from a longbow, especially broadheads, which everyone thinks for some reason would bust through armor. Crossbows though have a history of punching through armor though since they have way more power $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 18 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Firestryke for a given value of "good plate"... As you can see in the videos above, an arrow went through a "good plate" helmet. The shooter used a crossbow, but as he says, one of his colleagues gets much the same force with a longbow. In another video in that same channel they shot a breastplate with some longbows and the arrows bounced leaving very little denting, but they only tried a handful shots. Truth be told the breastplate was ~50% thicker than the helmet. $\endgroup$ Aug 18 at 15:27
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They'd overheat.

A variation on "orcs have limited endurance".

Orcs are bigger than humans (so they have less surface area per volume by the square-cube law to shed heat), and bulkier with lots of energy-intensive muscle mass, and on top of all that their metabolism is higher than a human's to power their superhuman feats (normally, larger creatures are proportionally weaker).

Add this all up and put an orc in full plate, and he'd collapse from heat exhaustion before he even got to the battlefield.

Some orcs can get away with heavy armor because they live in the right climate, or they can put up with the discomfort for a few crucial moments in an ambush. But in a long slog of a battle in the wrong conditions, with the sun beating down and the air thick with moisture, no orc would be caught dead without breathable, lightweight armor that doesn't cripple their combat effectiveness.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 this is the reason some human cultures never developed armor, if armor has a high risk of the fighter overheating it is a liability no matter how protection it gains. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 19 at 14:11
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Logistics

Traditionally (I'm thinking mainly LOTR here) orcs don't get on well with horses, oxen, or other beasts of burden. This means that they have to carry EVERYTHING with them on campaign. And armor is heavy! Despite what the movies show, most armies didn't go around in full battle armor on the march, it was carried in wagons or by mules. Especially heavy armors. Heck, even "Marius' mules" in Roman times had an actual mule for every 8 or so legionaries. What's more, even in armies where the soldiers did wear their armor an awful lot, the mule/wagon trains carried foodstuffs. Without them, your orcs have to ruck their own supplies, limiting the amount of armor they can wear even if they wanted to be in full plate 24/7.

If your orcs don't have access to large amounts of oxen/horses/donkey's/beasts of burden, they are likely to decide that heavy armor is too much a hindrance on campaign. That extra 20lbs of metal could be an extra week's worth of supplies, allowing them to raid deeper into enemy territory! Or they just carry 20lbs less of gear, enabling them to march faster and arrive at the battle less fatigued. Perhaps the richest/most powerful orcs have goblins/slaves/lesser orcs along with them to carry their heavy armor for them. But your average swordsorc who has to carry all his own gear is going to tend towards light armor.

Even if you decide in your world that orcs have horses/giant boar/whatever to carry stuff for them on campaign, light/medium armor can make sense. War is all about maneuver, and plenty of battles have been decided (or not even fought) because one army got into the right spot, before battle was even joined. So your Orc Generals may prefer a quicker, more lightly armored army to a slower, better armored one because from a strategic perspective a fast army is going to* do better than a slow one!

*Terms and conditions may apply.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, I wasn't thinking LOTR when I asked this question $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 18 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ * shrugs* you talked about how they were typically depicted, and the LotR orc is practically the poster child for "bog standard" in that department. Traditional orcs are garbage at logistics though, which amounts to the same thing. If everyone is so "type A" that they're insulted if they're sent to drive a supply wagon instead of fight, you'll run into the same kinds of trouble. $\endgroup$ Aug 18 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Firestryke Orcs are a Tolkien invention; so, LOTR orcs are canon orcs. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 18 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Firestryke Not exactly... Tolkine derived the name from the Roman god of death, Orcus, but nowhere in folklore does "orcs" show up prior to the writings of Tolkine. This is a common misconception because of the court case where DnD was forced to change the names of ents, belrogs, and hobbits, but not elves, orcs, dwarves, etc. The reason the Tolkien estate does not have rights to orcs is because Tolkien describes orcs as a warrior class of goblins rather than a distinctly unique race, and goblins are in folklore. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 18 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ The word orc is old, but it means "some kind of mega-deadly monster": simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orc. I for-sure remember the massive sea-orc from Orlando Furioso. Orc-as-savage-humanoid-warrior seems all Tolkien. $\endgroup$ Aug 19 at 4:51
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Only a fool indulges in a fair fight.

One attacks with surprise and flees at need. One sneaks about the countryside looking for the vulnerable. One engages in fights that can be won. In short, one uses tactics that maximize the utility of speed and lightness and minimize the utility of armor.

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Lack of metal

If you don't have access to a lot of metal, and all the metal you do have is tied up in weapons, there won't be much heavy armor around. And if none of the animals that life around you have skin thick enough to make decent armor out of... then you're down to bone/cloth/wood. At best.

Now have that culture (violently) run into one that makes heavy use of armor and one of two things will happen. "Armor Envy", or "Armor Bad".

Hearing?

Maybe your orcs have poor eyesight, and need unobstructed hearing. Loud armor is out, particularly helmets that cover the ears.

Biology

Biological imperative. Orcs have green skin because chlorophyll. These Orcs would not be happy underground, wouldn't do well where it's cold, etc. Might also have a sun worshipping religion and a taboo against covering certain areas of skin based on how much sunlight that area would be expected to get. Sandals that cover the bottom of your feet and are strapped on might be perfectly kosher, but covering ones shoulders is right out!

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Tower shields

Ask yourself, in what kind of situation would heavy armor be useful?

  • protection against arrows -> use a tower shield
  • protection against magic -> use a tower shield enchanted by an orc shaman
  • protection in melee:
    • against smaller enemies -> you don't need protection, you're an orc!
    • against larger enemies (dragons, ...) -> use a tower shield

If you are looking to replace heavy armor, tower shield seems like a great option:

  • it offers more protection
  • it is cheaper and easier to manufacture
  • if you need mobility in close melee or 1-on-1 combat you can discard it
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Armour is a compromise

Heavier armour obviously offers better protection, but is more fatiguing to wear from both weight and heat, which in turn restricts mobility. Not so much an individual soldier (who can perform almost any action armoured they could perform unarmoured) But units of heavily armoured soldiers cannot move about a theatre of conflict as easily as lighter armoured troops.

Tactically therefore heavy armour is more favourable when battles can reasonably be expected to have fairly limited duration, and the combatants have some way of "agreeing" a battle field.

How do Orcs fight?

If they prefer hit and run tactics, favouring several skirmishes a day, wearing an enemy down, over one decisive battle, then endurance and manoeuvrablility become more important than absolute protection.

Does practice and training emphasise co-operation or individual prowess? If the latter (and these are Orcs...) how are units co-ordinated on the battle field? Again lighter armour with improved vision and hearing may be better when command and control relies more on everyone being aware of the tactical situation rather than drill and set pieces.

Orcs are often portrayed as attacking in hordes - using overwhelming numbers. Outfitting one thousand knights in armour is one thing, a ten thousand strong horde is another.

Why do Orcs fight like this?

Perhaps they are nomadic (their high breeding rate means they constantly outstrip local resources forcing them to move on?).

Other answers have discussed the issue of carrying armour. Nomads also may have less access to metal and metal working making those types of armour less available to them, although boiled leather can be nearly as tough as steel (although much thicker).

Captured weapons can easily be used, but heavier armours, especially if they have articulated joints, often require some degree of fitting to the user for full mobility and comfort and so are not as useful. Especially if Orcs are on average a significantly different size or body shape to their usual opponents discouraging the use of armour taken as loot.

May be Orcs have a degree of indifference to personal injury. This could be physiological - reduced pain and shock, rapid wound healing, or it could be psychological. Maybe it is dishonourable to show weakness, or perhaps the guaranteed way to Orc heaven is to be slain in battle with the blood of at least ten foes fresh on your weapon. If Orc culture doesn't value an individual Orc all that highly then a good death that brings glory to your family might be more attractive than a long life.

Factors like these might reduce a perceived need for excessive protection.

If you don't have the armour that makes armoured fighting styles appealing, then you are not going to use armoured fighting styles, which in turn discourages the development of armour, even if that is how your enemies fight. "Puny Humans! Hiding in their skins of steel - for all the good it does them! Ha ha ha ha!"

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Toxic Masculinity Orculinity

The mushy humans wear armor. What self respecting orc would want to look like one of those prissy guys? Deep down an orc may wish to put on a shiny, glittering shirt of ring mail, he may even keep one stashed in the bottom of his pack, but he'd never put it on in front of his friends. That's a sure-fire way to lose your Orc-card

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Fighting with an enemy with a lot of druids in their ranks, or basically being druids all of them. Armor is of no use if everyone of your enemy troops knows the "heat metal" spell. Sword handles can be insulated. Axe handles can be made of strong wood. But, armor? Bad idea.

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If you take the basic Tolkien orc, they don't really have culture. There are no orcish armorers (or blacksmiths, miners, and so on). They have only what their evil Dark Lord employer supplies them with, or if operating independently, what they can steal/pillage from their victims. (But they're not going to get much that way, as well-armed human, dwarf, or elvish parties tend to defeat orcs unless greatly outnumbered.)

Thus it becomes a matter of economics & logistics. The Dark Lord can make or recruit lots of Orcs. But he has to have his non-orcish subjects make the armor, and if they're kept busy making lots of armor, that means they aren't growing food, making other weapons, &c. Thus the limited supply of good armor is reserved for his human troops. Orcs are basically sword fodder, and get old, outmoded stuff, if anything.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm talking about in my own fantasy world, not in Tolkien's. $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 18 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Firestryke: But we have no experience of your fantasy world. And just as a suggestion, if you're going to have beings that don't act like Tolkien orcs, you should come up with your own name for them. Otherwise you confuse people like me :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 19 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ I'm talking about orcs more similar to the Uri-kai but in a different world, and being an independent race. Think DnD. $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 19 at 13:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Firestryke: DnD? But I have no experience of that, either. And what are "Uri-kai"? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 20 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ Idk if I spelled it right, but they are the elite of Tolkien's orcs. They are what Saruman used $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 20 at 16:16

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