Game: Heroes of High Favor: Half-orcs
Publisher: Bad Axe Games
Review Dated: 24th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
This half-orc book is the second in the Heroes of High Favor line from Bad Axe Games and this time round the tight focus of the small 62-paged book is a strength. Half-orcs must be the neglected race of the D&D setting and so this time Heroes of High Favor set about addressing that wrong. The book looks at half-orcs and prestige classes derived from multi-class combinations of the race’s favoured class. Since the half-orcs’ favoured character class is barbarian we have a list of some intriguing and original prestige classes rather than the “oh… and can fight too” combinations which were produced for dwarf fighter.
I described the $9.95 62-paged book as small because it is. It’s physically small. The surface size of the book is about 40% smaller than the industry average. The text size certainly isn’t 40% smaller but is on the small side of the scale. Heroes of High Favor gets a way with this because it’s a book with an acutely defined application; half-orc multi-class based prestige classes. You’ll get the appropriate trappings such as new feats and skills with that but you’ll not get anything else. Fans of the style, those who might favour the crunchy side of role-playing, have described this as “cutting out the fat”. For me, though, it’s more like doing without flavour. That said, sometimes you can extract a little bit of flavour when game mechanics have a backbone concept behind them and that’s what you’ll find here. The feat “Mark of the Eye” caught my eye. I immediately wondered, “What Eye? What’s so special about the Eye!” and perhaps it was a bit of luck (or sly layout management) because the turn of the page offered to me rules for the Tribal Focus “The Burning Eye” (no harm in a bit of Tolkien homage, the who genre is built on it) and the finally the “Favored of the Eye” prestige class for barbarian-cleric multi-classes appears later on.
If you put together all the flavour implied by the mechanics and, of course, the explanatory text in the prestige classes you’ll be left with the view of the half-orc being caught between civilisation and savagery. Since the favoured prestige class is barbarian the view of the half-orcs in the book moves strongly in favour of the rural, the rustic and relatively wild orc. In fact, the most decisive decision for the half-orc is whether to lean towards the nearly organised warfare of tribes of the more animalistic and savage totem focused orc. If you’re looking for the whiny half-orc in search of acceptance from either side of his human or orc bloodlines then you’ll not find such a character among the Heroes of High Favor.
Introductions are rarely worth pointing out except when they’re missing. It seems unlikely that a stat heavy book such as this one has anything of note in its introduction but it does. The introduction asks the Barbarian Question. Why do half-orcs favour the barbarism? The barbarian is unique among the character classes insofar that it’s a cultural class rather than a professional one. You learn the way of the ranger, you study to become a wizard and train to become a fighter. You do none of these things for the barbarian class; you just become a barbarian. Are half-orcs more likely to become barbarians because the inherent savagery of their orc blood eventually wins out or are they inevitably pushed into that role by their environment?
Then the feats begin. There’s enough diversity in this list to make it worthwhile. At this stage of d20 development feats along the lines of “Even More Scary Greater Cleave” are just white space. There are some feats in the same family as the previous illustrated example would belong to; feats like “Axe Mastery” and “Refined Skill Focus”. The better feats are those that apply new but appropriate uses for the barbarian’s daily dose of rage. Examples of such feats are “Adrenal Healing” which applies only while you’re currently enraged and then after the expenditure of another rage you’ll gain Fast Healing:1 for the for the duration of your current page. The list of these feats attend to the ignored rage special ability in a similar way the whole book attends to the ignored half-orc race. Better yet is the idea of a tribal or totem focus; a game mechanic to inject some flavour straight into your half-orc.
I was also fairly impressed with the skill section in the book. As with feats it can be impossible to get your hands on any new or vaguely original idea for character skills but again the book benefits from the way other companies have ignored the half-orc. The two main thrusts of the skill section are for savage weapons and cross-breeding. Cross-breeding is an obvious skill association for the half-orc only with the benefit of hindsight. The rules for savage weapons thankfully don’t try and move forward some benefit in using inferior weapons and instead concentrate on the ease and relative speed in which these weapons can be made. If you’ve a nearby wood and a pile of pointy stones then you can create twenty spears more quickly than a blacksmith insisting on forging new metal heads for each spear could. Half-orcs are cross-bred humans and orcs and receive a mixture of orc and human characteristics as a result. The cross-breeding rules here provide ways to try and cross-breed animals and pick off the better characteristics of the two. Your half-orc is unlikely to be in the business of creating entire new races since these half-breeds are almost always sterile.
The prestige classes are designed to be “iconic multi-classes”. This means each class is paired off with the barbarian class and turned into a prestige class. Except these prestige classes aren’t just “The Fighter-Barbarian Prestige Class” and wrapped up with a better concept and idea. If you accept the concept then you should be able to accept mixtures like the barbarian-monk. The game-mechanic problem with the barbarian-monk is that barbarians and monks have differing alignment requirements. If you’re a lawful barbarian-monk then you can’t rage. The prestige class offered by Bad Axe Games, the Lost One, doesn’t try and gloss over this or provide some unlikely work around; it accepts and embraces this. The same is true of the barbarian-paladin. As I said above the barbarian is the only cultural class and so any combinations with it are particularly interesting even if there’s no game mechanic problems to deal with. All of the prestige classes are detailed through the full ten levels. Good. There are plenty of new special abilities in the book and new special abilities available to each prestige class at new levels. You don’t see too much in the way of the same ability simply getting better (+1, +2, +3, etc) as the character levels increase. The exception to this is the Wyrd (nice name by the way) prestige class based on the barbarian-sorcerer. The Wyrd gets better at controlling his Empathic Sensitivity and not boiling over as he progresses in level. Although Empathic Sensitivity is a bit county and perhaps suited only to campaigns where rage actions aren’t uncommon it’s twist on the original makes it one of my favourite offerings from the book.
Finally Heroes of High Favor: Half-Orcs finishes on a double page of roleplaying notes. These notes strike me a bit too much as easy steps to encourage a long time roll-player to try his hand at role-playing. I think specialist books like this one do tend to appeal more to long term players of some description or another – at the very least, it’s not likely to be bought by newbies. This is one of the reasons why I boggle at the game mechanic advice that persists throughout the book. This number crunching bothers me as much in Half-Orcs as it did in the previous Dwarf book. I don’t really like to have a new prestige class introduced with the suggestion that Attribute X will be important, not only is it too crunchy for my tastes but it goes as far to suggest that you should create your initial character with numbers in mind for a natural progression to a prestige class picked out in advance. Does this mean if you assign numbers to your character so he’ll become a good Agitator (barbarian-bard) that you’ll persist on that route even if your bard character never has any real in-game motivation to become a barbarian?
On the whole, though, I rather enjoyed this book in the Heroes of High Favor line. The combination of half-orcs and barbarians benefited the book as much as the book benefits those neglected character options. The book’s crunchy, it’s about the game mechanics but its possible to pick up flavour and inspiration by reading between the lines.