A bibliophile and attempted scholar, I have written and published several roleplaying books and designed the Dice & Glory system.
A group of slayers stands before a vast landscape of death; the bodies of men, women, and children lay bloodied as far as the eye can see. The green skin of the dead contrasting to their blackening red wounds and bright red running streams of blood. Above this gruesome tableau, black smoke from the flaming hovels, smoldering fields, and burning corpses swirls mingling turning the pale sky black. One of the armored killers pipes up in response to a questioning companion.
“Some Orcs might even be good people, I don’t know.”
Answered by a shrug followed by an address to the Game-Master, “How much XP were they worth?”, while another says, “I loot the bodies!”
This exchange has been and probably continues to be a common one across most roleplaying groups’ tables. This concept of simply treating Orcs, the entire fantasy race, as simple monsters that are inherently evil and no better than fodder for XP (experience point) hungry players is a very one-dimensional approach. An approach that is fraught with some legitimate controversy. This controversy, more heated than ever in recent months, originates from a long-running argument amongst the roleplaying caucuses. I intend to tackle this debate and address the arguments involved. However, the mere existence of the humble Orc is in itself an immensely complex matter. The intricate source of this controversy starts with the Old Argument, which is “Are Orcs just monsters or like other fantasy races”. Then it gets dicey when individuals concentrate that argument into memes and hashtags, which in today’s political clime become divisive not just at the table but in real-world political interactions.
Put all of this against a backdrop of a rapidly expanding and as a result diversifying hobby, which has been since its inception composed of a tight-knit community of individuals from very similar backgrounds (but not necessarily exclusionary mind you) and things can get ugly. Essentially, the concept of the Orc has at its heart, certain symbolic meanings inherited from the very inception of the idea of the modern Orc that traditional gaming modes are unable to successfully separate from them thus making them politically and publicly divisive. First, before we tackle the difficult stuff let us clear up some of the jargon used in this article.
A fantasy race is a representative symbol of an aspect or archetype of human nature whether that aspect is a positive or negative one traditionally all wrapped up in an imagined biologically distinct species of humanoid.
Three Key Terms & Preliminary Arguments
In our discussion on Orcs, three key terms will continue to appear. These terms are Fantasy Race(s), the Manichean World View, and Inherent Evil. These terms are especially useful when discussing fantasy in general as these three ideas are also often at the core of the Ur cannon of fantasy. These ideas are at the heart of fictional works such as Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858), The Well at World’s End by William Morris (1896), and The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (1922). As well as the works of Lord Dunsany, and of course the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien namely The Narnia series of books and The Lord of the Rings respectively. All of the previously mentioned works use a little bit of each of these three ideas. However, the most obvious and probably important for this article is that what originated, largely, with Tolkien, the Fantasy Race.
A fantasy race is a representative symbol of an aspect or archetype of human nature whether that aspect is a positive or negative one traditionally all wrapped up in an imagined biologically distinct species of humanoid. Additionally, fantasy races are not only humanoid, resembling human beings, but also possess human sentience. Essentially, a fantasy race embodies a certain aspect of or idea about human nature projected onto a human-like avatar that has features distinguishing it from humankind and thus placing some psychological distance between the fantasy world and real life. Often Fantasy Races referred to as Player Races are an additional dimension of a Player Character. The latter being an in-game avatar of a participant in the game, aka a Player.
In most tabletop roleplaying games, a fantasy race possesses certain bonuses and penalties to justify their selection as a race a player would want to build their character on. The other aspect of fantasy races, which can be problematic, is the focus on racial abilities and bonuses given to all members of that race which includes penalties, for Orcs the penalties are typically in appearance and intelligence. Often fantasy roleplaying games couple this concept of fantasy race with the idea of a world either caught in the throes of or created from the struggle between two dominant forces, good and evil.
This black and white portrayal of a world is the Manichean World View. Manichaeism is a theology with a dualistic cosmology where good, a spiritual world of light dominated by a good power (God), and evil, a material world of darkness dominated by an evil power (the Devil), struggle eternally. The world, humanity, and even the soul are a result of this constant battle.1
In this type of worldview, the world is simply black and white with perhaps a thin line of grey where they overlap to prevent absurdities like evil rocks although lands and even inanimate objects can be tainted. The Manichean cosmos in many fantasy worlds embodies good and evil as raw energy coursing through the universe and all beings. In these types of fantasy worlds, good and evil are often a pair of palpable, tangible, forces or energies that can be accessed and often manifest physically and psychically. However, the struggle between good and evil although often portrayed as a physical fight between hero and villain/monster, the conceptual core of the Manichean Universe is individual choice.
If both forces exist and are at constant odds within every individual being then what would distinguish an evil person as opposed to a good one would be their choices coinciding with one force or the other. These choices would inevitably cultivate one or the other force within them skewing the whole being towards either light or darkness based on individual choices. This means we have varying levels of evil and good when it comes to living beings. Regardless, we still have individuals making individual choices. However, conceivably with the idea in any fantasy world where evil and good are a palpable easily provable phenomena like energy then the idea can make the concept of being born evil a reality in that fantasy world thus eliminating individual choice from the equation.
In other words, the concept of a world where only good and evil exist inevitably leads to the concept of good and evil races. In these types of fictional worlds, most individuals of any race may fall under the neutral banner but can choose on an individual basis to be either good or evil. However, there are those races where all members are either good or evil.
This brings us to Inherent Evil, the idea that some beings and indeed entire races are naturally evil. That is, they are born irredeemably evil sometimes evil even being their very life force. Even when ignoring theosophical (Original Sin) and philosophical (namely Thomas Hobbes & Jacques Rousseau) aspects, instantiating the idea of the actual presence of the dual forces in a fantasy world allowing for unquestionably inherent evil there are still questions to be asked.
If a fantasy race that has human sentience is inherently evil they would still have a choice even if all of their choices are evil they would still be on a degree of evil. Even so, an evil race presupposes an evil society and thus culture. A societal structure fosters individuals and allows a race to survive as a collective in a hostile world. Therefore, even evil races must make decisions and have in their nature a potential for societal good, or otherwise, they would not survive as a race for long. Therefore, an inherently evil race would still harbor the seed of good and therefore each individual in that society would still have room to make decisions between good and evil. Nature would trump good and evil when it comes to survival strategies. It is not a stretch to presuppose that evil races that resemble humans would gravitate towards similar social survival tactics.
Alignment systems, as found in early roleplaying games, tried to account for this by using an extra feature added on top of the Manichean model, two additional conflicting forces, order (law), and chaos (lawlessness). Therefore, evil races may naturally arrange themselves into orderly societies despite their inherent evil because of the orderly forces of the universe and thus are dubbed Lawful Evil. However, in a universe with good and evil coursing energetically through all things, a Lawful Evil creature would have to make decisions or adhere to laws/rules that are either good or are simply not evil and if they are meant to and do maintain the public good then technically they are in line with the force of good. This range of executed choice would distance them from the extreme value of evil at the far end of the scale.
So, even in this modified universe of alignments (good, evil, chaos, order) a purely evil society simply does not exist even if the public good only maintains the evil society so that it can wreak evil on others. Eventually, individuals in that society will make more and more decisions for the good of their society. Then if choices foster and reinforce either good or evil then within the individuals who make these choices even if born inherently evil, they cease to be purely evil. Now if these individuals also have evil for a life force then they could not survive in even a remotely realistic fantasy world. With the addition of order and chaos, these decisions are still not neutral even if made solely with the law in mind due to the intention of maintaining and protecting society i.e. preserving the social good.
Typically, in the context of a Manichean universe seeing an Orc on an adventure means seeing an enemy, a monster, however, even in their earliest RPG incarnation they are described as having an organized society with specialized roles and even as having lairs and villages of considerable size.
For every 30 orcs encountered there will be a leader and 3 assistants. […] If 150 or more orcs are encountered there will be the following additional figures with the band: a subchief and 3-18 guards […]. If the orcs are not in their lair there is a 20% chance they will be escorting a train of 1-6 carts and 10-60 slave bearers bringing supplies and loot to their chief or to a stronger orc tribe. The carts will hold goods worth from 10 to 1,000 gold pieces, and each slave will bear goods worth from 5 to 30 gold pieces. If such a train is indicated, double the number of leaders and assistants, add 10 normal orcs for each cart in the train, and a subchief with 5-30 guards will always be in charge.
Orc lairs are underground 75% of the time, in an above ground village 25% of the time. There will always be the following additional orcs when the encounter is in the creatures' lair: a chief and 5-30 bodyguards […], females equal to 50% of the number of males, young equal to 100% of the number of moles. If the lair is underground, there is a 50% chance that there will be from 2-5 ogres living with the orcs. If the lair is above ground it will be a rude village of wooden huts protected by a ditch, rampart, and log palisade. The village will have from 1-4 watch towers and single gate. There will be 1 catapult and 1 ballista for each 100 male orcs […]. - Gygax, Gary. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR. 1978. Pg.76