This is something that's been bothering me for quite a bit now.

If you take a look at the description of the Orc race in Volo's Guide to Monsters, it states:

Orcs are vicious raiders, who believe that the world should be theirs. They also respect strength above all else and believe the strong must bully the weak to ensure that weakness does not spread like a disease.

However, here's a description of the Half-Orc race in the Player's Handbook:

Some half-orcs rise to become proud chiefs of orc tribes, their human blood giving them an edge over their full-blooded orc rivals.

And this is true, when you compare their differing racial abilities:


Relentless Endurance: When you are reduced to 0 hit points but not killed outright, you can drop to 1 hit point instead. You can't use this feature again until you finish a long rest.

Savage Attacks: When you score a critical hit with a melee weapon attack, you can roll one of the weapon's damage dice one additional time and add it to the extra damage of the critical hit.


Aggressive: As a bonus action, you can move up to your movement speed toward a hostile creature you can see or hear. You must end this move closer to the enemy than you started.

Powerful Build: You count as one size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.

My main question is... Why?

What makes a Half-Orc gain such an in-combat superiority over their full-blooded brethren? The lack of a -2 intelligence modifier makes sense given their human blood, and arguably you could chalk up their savage attacks due to increased intelligence/tactical superiority. But what about Relentless Endurance?

Wouldn't it make more sense that the race known for its aggression and selective breeding produce units that have tangible combat advantages beyond the heavy lifting and movement bonuses?

It really boils down to two questions for me:

  1. What lore is there as to why Half-Orcs are stronger, both lore-wise and mechanically, to pure Orcs?

  2. Is this historically how it's always been, half-orcs being superior to full orcs? If so, why haven't Orcs assimilated sooner with other races, with the clearly more intelligent and stronger Half-Orc tribes obliterating their weaker, pure-blooded opposition?


3 Answers 3


In 5th edition, half-orcs are more powerful than before.

If we look at page 282 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, we can compare the stats for an orc NPC and half-orc NPC on level footing. The Half-orc has +2 Str, +1 Con and Relentless Endurance, while the full Orc has +2 Str, -2 Int, and Aggressive. The half-orc is straight-up better, and no lore reason is given in this edition.

Historically, this wasn't always the case.

In D&D 3.5, full orcs (if played or built as a player character) had +4 Strength, while half-orcs had only +2. This makes orcs objectively stronger than half-orcs in that edition of the game. The strongest orc in a tribe would be more powerful than the strongest half-orc.

The big difference between the two is that half-orcs were intended to be used by player characters.

In D&D 4th edition, half-orcs gained Half-Orc Resilience, the ability to recover health when reduced to half hit points. This was part of a general trend in 4th edition to give every race multiple special abilities that would be useful in combat. This trend was carried over to D&D 5th edition where the half-orc gains something more like third edition's Diehard feat, which makes one harder to kill without dealing more damage in a hit.

There are also cultural factors at work.

In D&D lore, half-orcs are rarer than full orcs, and often rejected by orc society. For example, according to the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, p.11:

Dark of mood and nature, many half-orcs achieve renown despite their rejection by their parents' folk and many others.

This means that even if a half-orc is individually tough, he's not more powerful than an entire tribe of racist orcs who won't accept a half-orc ruler. They are described as rarer than orcs in the AD&D module WGS1: Five Shall Be One, which describes a certain large orc tribe having only a small minority of half-orcs:

This massive cavern houses the majority of buildings and creatures of Garel Enkdal. Some 20,000 orcs live here (including 500 half-orcs who can be treated as orcs).

The chief of this particular tribe is a full orc, although his wife is a half-orc who fights in a frenzy when reduced to half hit points (perhaps the origin of the 4th edition Half-Orc Resilience).

But really, many orcs are in fact stronger than half-orcs.

Adventurers are notably above-average individuals. The standard Orc in the Monster Manual is just a typical orc. The Orc War Chief has the ability to straight-up deal an extra 1d8 damage on every attack. A half-orc would have to be extremely skilled at fighting to top that.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ +1; That's a good point about comparing the Orc War Chief to a Half-Orc rather than just comparing a standard Orc. \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 7:42
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's worth to say that the concept of half-orcs being stronger than either humans or orcs has a precedent that goes back to Tolkien. The Uruk-hai were bred to be just as strong as the Uruks of Mordor, and were stronger, smarter, and braver than the vast majority of Orcs. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Awesome, complete answer, and exactly what I was looking for. The comparison with the Orc War Chief was a great point as well. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nicbobo
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 21:45

There's no meaningful in-universe reason D&D Orcs are bad at everything they do (although you can lift a useful one from Warhammer in many situations: infighting); they're bad at everything they do (and remain that way, but are never eradicated) because they need to serve their narrative purpose and most D&D settings are not that sophisticated in terms of world-building.

Orcs are the evil cannon fodder of the setting, and the setting serves a gameplay style that requires a lot of cannon fodder.

So, their narrative purpose is: gotta be ready to die in large numbers. To be ready to die in large numbers, it's easiest if you're not superior to the players who are going to be doing that killing.

Players don't typically play Orcs; they do typically play Half-orcs. This means Orcs and Half-orcs don't share a narrative purpose; Half-orcs aren't exclusively cannon fodder. There's your answer IMO.


As orcs are entirely fictional species there are no specific rules. That is just how the authors imagined them to be.

Drawing from nature, Mules are a hybrid species from two distinct species (horse and donkeys) to create an infertile offspring. In this particular combination, mules happen to be stronger in some aspects than either Horses or Donkeys. But it really depends on what qualities you think matter.

There are likely other downsides that may just not be listed in the statblock as D&D is an adventure game, the clue is in the title "Dungeons and Dragons". It's not "Homemaking and Agriculture". This is how the PHB introduces the concept of the game:

In the D u n g e o n s & D r a g o n s game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends). Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon, a ruined city, a haunted castle, a lost temple deep in a jungle, or a lava-filled cavern beneath a mysterious mountain. The adventurers can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure.

Traits that are outside that scope don't matter so wouldn't be listed. For example, Half-orc may be infertile the same as mules, which would destroy their prospects of marriage in the medieval time period its set in but just isn't relevant for adventurers.

But the writers clearly weren't happy enough with this to leave it unchanged, in 2022 (several years after you asked your question) Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse was released which changed Orcs so that species also has Restless Endurance (but called Relentless Endurance).

Under those new rules, the only substantial difference is Orc can dash closer to an enemy as a bonus action while Half-Orc can deal more damage on a critical hit. So the Orc has a trait favoring rushing in headstrong while the Half-Orc has a trait favoring more precise strikes.


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