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
If there are different positions in society including the artisans and labor required to construct even a “crude village” then the builders have the faculties for learning, ambition to reach the different social strata and professions, and be capable of negotiation with other settlements and tribes. This in itself raises an old question, the old question.
On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster [.]
— Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide 1979
The Old Debate
The question – Are Orcs exclusively monsters or a fantasy race equal to the other “standard” races (i.e. dwarves, elves, humans, gnomes, and halflings) – has been asked consistently since the inception of the tabletop roleplaying game concept of the Orc.
Possibly this question arose due to the player opinion that playing an Orc, especially an Orc Barbarian, would be cool and maybe give them some advantages in the game over their fellows. What better way to get to play an Orc in a time when their status as monsters was the rule than to convince the group that they are indeed as all of the other "standard races" are. This question must have been somewhat common and not limited to the humble Orc in the early years of fantasy roleplaying as evidenced in the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide.
On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster [.] This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the unalterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind. - Gygax, Gary. Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide, TSR. 1979. Pg.21
This leads us to the Half-Orc, a racial class that results from the mixing of human and Orcish blood. It might be safe to say that the introduction of the Half-Orc was an attempt at squelching the argument early on. However, this mix of human and Orc raised even more questions about the nature of Orcs. The concept of Half-Orcs just lent credence to the argument that Orcs are indeed similar enough to the playable races, close enough to humans, to be a playable race themselves. If Orcs can have children with Humans, then how are they that different?
This brings us back around to the Manichean or born-evil argument, if they are similar enough to humans to produce offspring frequently enough to warrant a new racial category then they should also be similar enough to have a similar range of moral choice. This of course does not rule out a violent warrior dominated culture or individual villains. However, as mentioned before, the Old Debate continues with Half-Orcs pushing it towards the Orcs are a playable fantasy race i.e. people answer.
Orcs are fiercely tribal fighters, ready to tear apart whatever comes up against them with barbaric fury. In almost any sort of D&D encounter, they’ll want to kill the majority of adventurers on sight, if for no other reason than that the latter might have supplies worth taking. Despite this, some of the prerequisites [to count as people][Mary Anne] Warren speaks of [in her Space Traveler thought experiment] are present in Orc culture.2 Their main god, Grummsh, has a clear, if brutish, role in Orcish society. Orcs can also have the ability of Artifice: they are typically considered able to create practical if crude, armor, weapons, clothing, and other artifacts, which they design according to an easily identifiable cultural aesthetic. They usually have quite primitive shelters, normally residing in caves in earlier editions of the game. So these Orcs pass Warren’s criteria for being people. Yet they are more than willing to kill and eat you, hopefully (for your sake) in that order. And you, as an adventurer, would surely be foolish to do anything else but respond to them more or less in kind. - Cogburn, Jon & Mark Silcox ed., Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy. Carus Publishing Co., 2012 from The Laboratory of the Dungeon essay by Mark Silcox and Jonathon Cox. pg. 129.
The Old Debate splits the community into two opposing sides. Those that wish to keep the Orc as the monochrome monsters portrayed by Tolkien and alternately those that see them more like the rest of the fantasy races. This schism over the playability of the Orc has continued more or less for the existence of the hobby. Indeed, it continues across all of the caucuses of roleplaying, just pose the question at your next session, everyone probably has an opinion that falls to one side or the other. However, to understand fully the ramifications of this debate we must dig deep to the very roots of the Orc as a concept.
The term Orc has its roots in Old English and variations that seem to reflect an etymology such as the Italian Orco meaning “ogre” and Orcneas found in Beowulf meaning “monsters”.
The Rotten Roots: The Origin of the Orc
The modern concept of the Orc grew from Tolkien’s vision using the name of a mythic monster and the conversion to roleplaying as a foe for players to fight then ultimately to a full-blown fantasy race. It was a natural progression in the market place of ideas since it was inevitable that the spaces created by vague descriptions of culture in service of military value and then gods would become irresistible to writers and creators inside and outside of the hobby.
The term Orc has its roots in Old English and variations that seem to reflect an etymology such as the Italian Orco meaning “ogre” and Orcneas found in Beowulf meaning “monsters”. However, the true author of the current core concept of the Orc is J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Orcs (the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability) are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions’.” (3, Letter #144, Pgs.177-178)
Here, by Tolkien’s own words, we come to the literary “creation” of the Orc. If they were created as some sort of super-soldier or genetically compelled killing machines then maybe they can function as an irredeemably evil race simply because they cannot shake their nature, the purpose for which they had been created. This is also an argument on the side of the “monster” argument, the Orc is an engineered soldier and thus incapable to disobey both their genetic calling and societal conditioning. Inevitably, they will act on their base instincts and cause havoc and destruction even within a “good” culture, which may only mitigate their natural viciousness.
However, in a letter to Peter Hastings, the manager of a Catholic bookshop in Oxford, the Newman Bookshop, Tolkien discussed the ability of ‘evil’ to create life and the nature of such beings. Hastings started with an example of Treebeard stating that the Dark Lord had created the Trolls and Orcs. Hastings suggested that evil was incapable of creating anything, and argued that even if it could create, its creatures ‘could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one’. Hastings continues with some examples as to how some of Tolkien’s evil beings exhibit in some very small ways non-evil characteristics. “[O]ne of the Trolls in The Hobbit, William, does have a feeling of pity for Bilbo.”
In response: “I think I agree about the ‘creation by evil’. But you are more free with the word ‘creation’ than I am. Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord ‘created’ Trolls and Orcs. He says he ‘made’ them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements, so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true. It is not true actually of the Orcs – who are fundamentally a race of ‘rational incarnate’ creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today.” (3, Letter #153, Pg.190)
Tolkien seems to be struggling with the nature of Orcs although he used them as basic fodder for his heroes in the stories where they appeared. Truly, all Games-Masters in tabletop RPGs are guilty of this (yes, me as well) whether the fodder is trolls, gnolls, goblins, kobolds, etc. but I digress. Considering Tolkien’s previous statement, it is clear that the later Manichean construction of the Orc, a being of pure evil from birth to the grave, was not the creator’s intention and the invention of the Orc is symbolically linked to human beings, at least in the exhibition of certain human traits.
In addition, even if Orcs are somehow a thoroughly irredeemably evil race, they are essentially human as in Tolkien’s own words: “Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring – even as a rare event[.]” (3, Letter #153, Pg.189) However, the existence of Elrond Half-Elven and his brother Elros refutes that last part.
As men and elves are related and the Orcs are twisted versions of elves, it follows that Orcs are likewise related. “In the legend of the Elder Days it is suggested that the Diabolus subjugated and corrupted some of the earliest Elves[.]” (3, Letter #153, Pg.191)
Essentially, Orcs were conceived as a preexisting race, elves twisted and transformed by an evil force though their nature was ‘corrupted’ it was not necessarily completely evil either. “They would be Morgoth’s greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad. (I nearly wrote ‘irredeemably bad’; but that would be going too far. Because by accepting or tolerating their making – necessary to their actual existence – even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good.) But whether they could have ‘souls’ or ‘spirits’ seems a different question; and since in my myth at any rate I do not conceive of the making of souls or spirits…I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodeling and corrupting them, not making them. That God would ‘tolerate’ that, seems no worse theology than the toleration of the calculated dehumanizing of Men by tyrants that goes on today.” (3, Letter #153, Pg.195)
The actual origin of the Orc in the fictional universe of the Legendarium vacillates between several explanations. The majority share the two main points that Morgoth was responsible in some way for them and shaped them from preexisting beings. This does obscure their actual fictional origin quite a bit but the points that matter most are the previously mentioned two.
Of course, as Tolkien’s world was a fantasy world then incarnate symbols abound. "Elves and Men are represented biologically akin in this 'history', because Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world. They have certain freedoms and powers we should like to have, and the beauty and peril and sorrow of the possession of these things is exhibited in them…" (3, Letter #153, Pg.189)
To cap that little summary of the main creative force behind the conception of the Orc, even Tolkien had to admit the Orcs “being the fingers of the hand of Morgoth, they must be fought with the utmost severity, they must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and treachery.” However, “[c]aptives must not be tormented, not even to discover information for the defence of the homes of Elves and Men. If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost. This was the teaching of the Wise, though in the horror of the War it was not always heeded.” (4, Pg.419) Note that a footnote to the previous text in Morgoth’s Ring does state that no Orc had treated Elves in a civilized manner and vice versa as the Dark Lord Morgoth had convinced the Orcs that the elves were crueler than themselves. Essentially, the Dark Lord waged a successful propaganda campaign against the Orcs and Elves then Men played into it by not being “wise” and offering mercy.
At their roots, however, the Orc is simply a vicious soldier used by a Lord of Darkness their flesh and mind twisted towards that purpose but they are not born evil so to speak. Outside of the influence of a Dark Power, they do have a choice. They are a part of the world as a whole and thus less-monster than they are a human-like race. This brings us to how the physical appearance of Orcs was synthesized and evolved.
The Tears of an Orc
Imagine for a moment, a handful of adventurers facing down a horde of Orcs, the line of tightly packed twisted warriors roaring and gnashing their pointed teeth. The Orcs’ mottled skin, oily hair, and a thick layer of grime and filth blackening the whole reeking company causing their ugliness to melt together into an anonymous evil black mass. The adventurers, heroes, hold up their glittering shields and ready their polished blades all the while smiling. Nothing gets the old heroic bloodlust frothing like a ravening horde ripe for battle.
The physical appearance of the Orc originated with, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien. He described them in the Book of Lost Tales Part Two as fierce hard-hearted monsters.
“Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko. The greatest hatred was between them and the Noldoli, who named them Glamhoth, or folk of dreadful hate.” (5, Pgs.159-160)
In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes the Orcs as, “a grim dark band, four score at least of large, swart, slant-eyed Orcs with great bows and short broad-bladed swords.” (6, Pg.441) Elsewhere they are described as “swart” (6, Pg.317), and “black” (6, Pg.437) language, when applied to indigenous people, is common in dehumanizing Imperialist Rhetoric. Orcs’ physical description ranges from large to short with long arms and crook-legs. Their general humanoid shape varies quite a bit but seems mostly tied to their home region (Isengarders, Orcs of Mordor, and Northerners). It also seems to be a physical representation of their twisted nature. Also, Orcs, more specifically the Uruk-hai, do refer to the Rohirrim as “Whiteskins” (6, pg.441).
Speaking of Orc skin being described as ‘black’ you may have heard that Tolkien used the descriptor “black” for their skin color based on the comparison to the visage of German troops, which he fought, in the trenches of World War I. This is highly unlikely as he “later insisted there was no parallel between the Goblins he had invented and the Germans he had fought, declaring ‘I’ve never had those sorts of feelings about the Germans. I’m very anti that kind of thing.’” (7, Pgs.218-219). He pushed for respect for all soldiers: “The Germans have just as much a right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done.” (3, Pg.93) He was stating this in response to the notion in Britain at that time that the Germans should be wiped out.
Tolkien was extremely wary of such demonization of the enemy, particularly when connected to race, even though his own racialized rhetoric and descriptions in The Lord of the Rings can be problematic at times. The orcs of The Lord of the Rings most certainly do not represent German, Russian, or Japanese soldiers, and Tolkien makes clear in his wartime letters to his son Christopher that the orc, if it were to be viewed metaphorically as a violent, boorish, uncivilized person, would be well represented in every country in the world. Yet, in the fantasy writings for which he is most famous, the orc stands out among the various enemies—a category that includes “evil” men, as well as such traditional monsters as dragons, trolls, fell beasts (wolves, for instance), and god-like villains, Morgoth or Sauron—as a special case of demonization. - Tally, Robert T. Jr., Demonizing the Enemy, Literally: Tolkien, Orcs, and the sense of the World Wars. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/8/1/54/htm
It seems when it comes to the Orc as WWI German soldier or Nazi allegorical counterpart, it simply does not ring true when citing authorial intention. However, Tolkien did model his Orc at least in part on a historical culture.
As with most creators, he borrowed from real-life to construct a believable fictional creature, at least in the context of his world. Unfortunately, it seems that personal prejudices, whether intentional or unconscious, seeped in, again, as with all creators. Tolkien did use real word people and cultures as a basis for some of his fantasy races and cultures. He modeled the dwarves at least partially on Jewish ethnicity. “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…” (3, Letter #176, Pg.229)
Similarly, he modeled the Orcs, detrimentally, after the facial features of a certain people of color. The intent may have been to call up the dread hordes of history such as the Hun and the Turks as they invaded Europe essentially using the Eastern Horde Trope. The intended effect was probably something similar to how Eastern cultures would view the crusaders, Portuguese, and the British. If my comparison here caused you a twinge, then you are starting to catch on to the true nature of Orcish roots. To explore further this aspect of Orcs in detail I would suggest James Mendez Hodes’ Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth. The horde trope is a traditional historical caricature that is often used to denigrate a specific culture that is seen as a threat from without. However, using the stereotype of the Mongol horde to synthesize the Orc in this fashion is the definition of racism.
The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types. (3, Letter #210, Pg.274)
Though Tolkien famously disliked allegory it does not mean that simply by modeling his Orcs after actual cultures from history for the desired effect that he believed would be engendered in them that he would not be creating a symbol that would carry more than he intended. Seemingly, his authorial intent was not intended to be racist in his understanding of racism but his prejudices, most likely due to his enculturation and time in history, were also encoded within the Orc.
“…I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations [.]” (6, Pg. xvii)
Even if it was not his direct intention, Tolkien had laid down a racially charged foundation for Orcs. It was perhaps his intention that they carry the symbolic weight of a violent invading force; creatures twisted and conditioned to be soldiers from birth. Any shred of mercy still lurking in their beings squelched by propaganda that also affected their opponents. This symbolic power caused the overtly racist components to melt deep into the dark-skinned bodies of the Orc. However, to put forward the question “was Tolkien racist” here would be intellectually dishonest and a roadblock to our ultimate destination.
The Orcs now inhabited the fictional realm but already they had some baggage in the form of a racial stereotype. It would not be long before Tolkien’s fantasy carried the concept of the Orc far and wide and other creators would take up the idea.
The clearest link between the RPG concept of the Orc and Tolkien’s work is the ever-famous Appendix-N found in the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax (1979). Here (Pg.224), the creator of the first tabletop roleplaying game that would spawn and inspire many others wrote, “The following authors were of particular inspiration to me.” In this list of influential authors is “Tolkien, J.R.R. The HOBBIT; “Ring Trilogy”. From here, Tolkien's Orcs were adapted for the roleplaying game becoming the iconic cookie-cutter bad guys required for heroes i.e. the Players to fight just as Tolkien needed them to fulfill the same role in his narrative.
So, are Orcs evil by nature? Well, we are at the breadth of discussion to have approached Godwin’s Law. It can be argued that Orcs serving the Dark Lords Morgoth and Sauron are the equivalent of the Third Reich of Middle-Earth, and thus irredeemably evil. This would equate the Orc soldiers as stormtroopers and any defense of them including that of them serving for fear of their own or their families' lives and they simply were just following orders become suspect and equivalent to the real-world horror of Nazism. However, this addresses the entirety of the forces they serve or are forced to serve, it does not mean you might find individuals opposed, sometimes violently, against all aspects of their superiors or fellow citizens. In real life, there were Germans who opposed the Nazis, fled from them, and fought them. Not to mention those forced to fight in the uniform of Nazis often with the threat of death against them and their families (see Saving Private Ryan). Essentially, you cannot ignore the individual in all of that mess, and no cultural or political body can be as homogenous in mind and political intent in real life or a simulacrum thereof as the Orcs are portrayed to be in fiction.
Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration - brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen - highlights their pinkish snouts and ears.
— Gary Gygax, AD&D Monster Manual 1978
Adapting the Orc to a roleplaying game to serve the same purpose as in the Legendarium of course carried along the racial implications inherent from their creation as well. Possibly to assuage this but more likely to prevent player adoption as a playable race as opposed to a simple monster, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons at TSR emphasized the grotesque thereby dehumanizing the Orc. Further, through the identification of all Orcs in conjunction with a ‘horde’, they are depersonalized. Depriving the Orc of the qualities found in the allowed races reduces them to generic purely evil foes. An Orc that is a simple monster serves to relieve any player-responsibility in slaughtering them willy-nilly.
Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration - brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen - highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black, sometimes with tan patches. Even their armor tends to be unattractive - dirty and often a bit rusty. Orcs favor unpleasant colors in general. Their garments are in tribal colors, as are shield devices or trim. Typical colors are blood red, rust red, mustard yellow, yellow green, moss green, greenish purple, and blackish brown. They live for 40 years. - Gygax, Gary. Advanced D&D Monster Manual, TSR Games,1978. Pg.76
Another adaptation that was applied to the Orc to solidify their monstrous status was to invent Orcish gods, gods that could explain why the Orc is born evil and has a society that encourages violence and malevolent acts. However, these attempts to rectify the born evil problem and consolidate them as the offspring of an evil and violent god may have inadvertently called up the specter of Imperialism.
In the beginning all the gods met and drew lots for the parts of the world in which their representative races would dwell. The human gods drew the lot that allowed humans to dwell where they pleased, in any environment. The elven gods drew the green forests, the dwarven deities drew the high mountains, the gnomish gods the rocky, sunlit hills, and the halfling gods picked the lot that gave them the the [sic] fields and meadows. Then the assembled gods turned to the orcish gods and laughed loud and long. “All the lots are taken!” they said tauntingly. “Where will your people dwell, One-Eye? There is no place left!”
There was silence upon the world then, as Gruumsh One-Eye lifted his great iron spear and stretched it over the world. The shaft blotted the sun over a great part of the lands as he spoke: “No! You lie! You have rigged the drawing of the lots, hoping to cheat me and my followers. But One-Eye never sleeps; One-Eye sees all. There is a place for orcs to dwell . . . here!” he bellowed, and his spear pierced the mountains, opening mighty rifts and chasms. “And here!” and the spearhead split the hills and made them shake and covered them in dust. “And here!” and the black spear gouged the meadows, and made them bare.
“There!” roared He-Who-Watches triumphantly, and his voice carried to the ends of the world. “There is where the orcs shall dwell! There they will survive, and multiply, and grow stronger, and a day will come when they cover the world, and they shall slay all of your collected peoples! Orcs shall inherit the world you sought to cheat me of!”
In this way, say the shamans, did the orcs come into the world, and thus did Gruumsh predict the coming time when orcs will rule alone. This is why orcs make war, ceaseless and endless: war for the wrath of Gruumsh.
[…] Warfare between tribes is actually encouraged to some extent by the orcish gods, who believe that this is the best way of eliminating the unfit and weak, and promoting the survival and growth of the strong. No attention is paid to the thought that it might also waste the best fighters’ talents, which might have been better directed against non-orc foes. - Gygax, Gary. Unearthed Arcana, TSR Games. 1985. Pgs.118-119
This issue of the evil nature of Orcish gods not just alludes to but circles back towards the issue of Colonization, a sensitive point with people of color, as well as the attempt to patch up the evil-question by giving a divine excuse for the Orcs’ culture of violence tacking on a reverse colonist mentality thereby preserving their enemy/monster aspect. This solution, as exhibited in the previous lengthy quotation, has a few parallels to the crimes of Colonization when native peoples were cheated out of their lands, characterized as primitive, and villainized at every possible turn. Especially true when they fought back or even when just trying to survive the Colonial order forcibly imposed upon them. Dehumanizing someone so you can kill them and take their stuff is Colonialism and it has been the role of the Orc in RPG’s since the beginning.
Although this idea being exercised in a fantasy game may not be a problem when handled with some nuance and may enrich a game that strives to go deeper and maybe work out some real-world issues and scenarios with fantasy stand-ins, an aspect of fantasy like in most fictional genres, that has always existed. Essentially, attempts to justify the evil by nature argument that preserves the Orcs’ status as fodder lead to the overtones of Imperialism and a sense of Colonial depredation against indigenes.
This situation does however raise some interesting and somewhat less controversial thematic issues such as civilization versus primitivism, bias versus the reality of the situation, and oppression versus freedom. There are also the practicalities of Game-Mastering: the culture of Orcs, the adding of Orcs to the GM's repertoire of NPCs. This creative canvas was now wide open concerning Orcs featured in roleplaying games simply by the addition of the Orcish Gods, that accented an existent Orcish culture and the details and even new cultures and offshoots were now fertile ground for Gamesmasters and other creatives.
Soon after this concept of the Orc was forged, others altered and adapted the idea of the Orc adding in details that have since stuck and mayhap served to paint-over the casual racism of their creation with green skin, larger than a human frame, and more pig-like facial features as opposed to human features. The latter drawn from Tolkien where he described some Orcs as having a porcine like sense of smell. Other additions of tusks or tusk-like bottom teeth and a massive underbite have become an ingrained feature in the popular image of the Orc. Their build, which seems to have been similar to both elves and humans at first if slightly shorter, changed increasing their size, weight, and musculature possibly to increase their threatening appearance later on.
The Orc has taken on a diverse range of appearances since most of which currently share certain features such as a green skin-color, yellow eyes, and fang or tusk-like teeth. Their appearance has drifted from the more human though racist caricature of Tolkien to an altogether different species of intelligent beings but human similarity has remained in the form of the Half-Orc adapted from, again, Tolkien.
Orcs were just monsters and required no thought when met in the game, they were to be killed and the players' characters gained rewards for doing so (XP/treasure). There was no other in-game purpose for them but the waters muddied with the introduction of the Half-Orc. Essentially, Half-Orcs in Tolkien came about when humans interbred with Orcs.
Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breads, most of the offspring of such being typically Orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels are sufficiently non-orcish to pass for humans. […] As it is assumed that player characters which are of half-orc race are within the superior 10%, they have certain advantages. - Gygax, Gary. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, TSR Games, 1978. Pg.17
Disregarding how this is achieved, these implications another argument for another day, it solidified that Orcs and humans were close enough to breed successfully consistently. With this revelation, the Orc became a little more human. For the first time real questions about individuality could be asked by those playing a Half-Orc and then what of the Orcs? However, circa 1978 the Orc was still the enemy and Half-Orcs, even the minority of those that resembled humans more so than others, a creature of openly contemptible roots.
The controversy around the circumstances of the interbreeding of humans and Orcs and the birth of Half-Orcs have swirled for just as long as the old argument and has been included in contemporary issues of racial politics and Orcs. However, this somewhat exceeds the scope of this already lengthy piece. What matters is that Orcs and Humans can create children together. Thus, the humanization of Orcs had begun.
However, as creators far and wide adopted the Orc, the problems born of their roots did not go unnoticed even as their humanization through the idea of the half-orc proceeded. Certain creators tried different methods of adapting the Orc and certain works did noticeably alter them in significant ways. Certain works that have exacerbated the current debate in recent years have included media ranging from video games to movies not to mention other tabletop roleplaying games.
- Bright (2017) – This movie crudely uses Orcs as a stand-in for racial discrimination but fails in any viable commentary on racial & class politics miserably.
- Warcraft (2016) – In this movie based on the MMORPG video game series, Orcs are characters with a warrior culture that is not inherently evil though their leader definitely is.
- Warhammer 40k – Here, the Ork are very reminiscent of the typical TSR-adapted Orc but are actually genetically engineered and programmed super-soldiers.
This list also includes the so-called Revisionist Orcs with their enemy status based in culture, practices, and mindset rather than being inherently a part of their being (though they may think so) still allows for individuality, it does not paint them all with the same brush as their previous treatments did. Portrayal matters. An example of a variation on the Orc idea is the Warhammer Ork, they are not only engineered alien soldiers but reproduce either through amoeba-like division or through spores released at death. This eliminates the roots and the concept of the Half-Orc along with the disturbing implications carried with that.
Along the way, some creators have attempted to change the appearance of orcs to distance the idea from the implications of Tolkien's original. However, this is putting window dressing around the real issue for those who object to the stereotypical use of Orcs because of what they represent. Orcs as most monsters and indeed anything within the context of RPG's are symbols that may carry symbolic meaning within a game and thus simply changing appearance does nothing to assuage that meaning to those who see it or more likely feel it due to their personal experiences.
The main purpose of this hashtag was to ridicule #BlackLivesMatter used by #WhiteLivesMatter bigots.
The assumption is, of course, meant to be “no they do not”. Somewhere around 2014, the hashtag OrcLivesMatter was born, probably emergent from the cesspit of 4-Chan meme-craft. It plays as a joke on the debate around Orcs purely as Monsters (born inherently evil) and as a fantasy RPG Race. However, regardless of its original intent, it is used in a few different ways by different people of varying political stances for various reasons as of late but at its root, it weaponizes the nastier meta-aspects of the Orc, the inherently racist ones.
The main purpose of this hashtag was to ridicule #BlackLivesMatter used by #WhiteLivesMatter bigots. The second group to make wide use of this hashtag is the “Orcs are just cannon fodder” group who frankly despise not using this fantasy race as monsters to carve their way through. Often they use it as a jab to “bleeding hearts” who dare to mention that you can think of Orcs in any other fashion – so it becomes a form of light trolling, which is not too constructive an occupation either. These two groups are not mutually exclusive or necessarily a packaged deal either. They are uncomfortably close ideologically on this issue though.
The last group that uses it is composed of those who genuinely want to have Orcs occupy a deeper facet in their fantasy worlds as opposed to as fodder. Essentially, this is an un-ironic and literal use of the hashtag. Not to say that just a monster and more than just a villain are exclusive ideas, Orcs as a race can be individuals and some of those can truly be monstrous. Unfortunately, this last group is much more a rarity.
This hashtag matters because the latent aspects of the Orcs, their rotten roots, were weaponized for a specific purpose. It is an attack against the expansion of the hobby into a wider demographic and used by racists to denigrate and dehumanize their political opponents thus contaminating the gaming sphere with their shit. It creates an exclusivity that locks out newer gamers especially those of color, giving those conservative forces of gaming ammo to exclude by passive-aggressive means simply by introducing Orcs as player fodder.
Now practically, if your group is less sensitive or less inclined to read into imaginative symbols and contextual meaning then this may be less of an issue for your table. However, those of you who decry the entrance of politics into the fantasy worlds of roleplaying games, well the hashtag OrcLivesMatter and OrcPosting as rightwing dog whistles has beaten you to the punch and directly connects with the parallelism of people of color and Orcs in fantasy just as that hashtag is a direct swipe at BlackLivesMatter.
However, it is not fundamentally racist to use Orcs in a tabletop roleplaying game. It depends on how they are employed in the game. Orcs as a race of evil is problematic on a basic philosophical level or as faceless invading monsters to be slaughtered without mercy; Tolkien had stated that this line of thinking is wrong although his narrative seemed to demand that of the Orc in the first place.
The creators of the hashtag and others like it were taking advantage of the symbolic value of the Orc felt by those sensitive to it. Allowing certain people to accurately aim and take a shot at political opponents and people of color like a silencer on a gun. This leaving onlookers who do not know the meanings behind the symbol or sensitive to those meanings clueless as to the why the kerfuffle hence, the term dog-whistle. This hashtag used Orcs as stand-ins for illegal immigrants circa 2017. With all the baggage the Orc carries, I should not have to spell out the intended effect.
The Symbolism of Fantasy Worlds
Previously, there has been mention of Orcs as carrying symbolic weight and they do. A symbol is an image that carries a meaning that is unrestricted from the image itself though a certain element or aspects of the visual skin of that symbol will encode meaning. This meaning may generally be the same among those visualizing it and felt more than intellectually sensed for the most part. This emotional aspect is perceived differently between individuals though the general meaning or an aspect of it is still shared.
Symbols are important to fantasy worlds as they can make the readers, players feel a specific way about the symbol itself, or about characters that interact with it or how they interact with it. A symbol is a very powerful device in the arsenal of the Gamesmaster. Orcs, as they exist in roleplaying games, are the same.
As a rough symbol and on the surface, Orcs exist as a reflection of the worst of human nature – as corruptions of elves and humans. There is a yin-yang dimension as Elves are meant to reflect the best of humanity, especially when juxtaposed with Orcs. However, racial encoding is still present from their very inception. This conglomeration of values is a valid allegorical reading of the Orc as a symbol. When the descriptive language follows this line of thinking, the Orcs racist roots begin to submerge though not wither. This raises the issue of using them as fodder especially with those that are sensitive to the core of the Orc as a symbol.
The game world of any tabletop roleplaying game and all of its contents exist within the imaginations of the participants. In this context, everything that the Gamesmaster describes or exists within the game is essentially a symbol. The value of such a symbol is not only dependent on any underlying values or qualities it may inherently carry but also depends on how Player Characters interact with it during play. It is also how and what the Players feel about the game-object and its treatment/handling/reaction to by any of the participants based on this. In the theater of the imagination that is a roleplaying game, creatures, places, objects, etcetera are imagined and thus exist solely as abstractions based on an image and thus may carry other meanings creating a symbol. This includes imaginary fantasy races.
Now, the term race itself as used even in this article is suspect as it is based on the idea there is an arbitrary classification of intelligent beings that determines to some extent their basic behavior and levels of cognitive function as well as certain physical predilections. As a device, Fantasy Race is widely used in fantasy and some consider it the Original Sin of Fantasy. As a consequence of fantasy races being able to serve as messy or ad hoc symbols they can also express the attitudes of those participating and running games towards other human beings especially when the races in question express certain aspects of human behavior.
As everything in the game world is imagined and must be communicated to be interacted with, language and the words used in the description of such are of utmost importance. Language matters in description, narration, and context too matters especially when directed at Orcs due to the attached mesh of qualities that are their core makeup. Using language that can be construed as Imperialist Rhetoric is invoking the racist aspects of the Orc especially when they are described as "dark-skinned" and "savage". Essentially the language used to communicate the idea of the Orc to players and GMs alike matters and what can determine if the use of Orcs in a game is racist or not sometimes more so than their actual roles in the narrative.
How the Gamesmaster portrays the Orc, indeed any symbol or embodiment thereof, within the game during play can encode and/or determine what underlying aspects of the Orc will become prominent. If Orcs are portrayed as and interacted with as fodder then their human qualities are disposed of and the group is treading a line to observers. If somewhere during the progression of the game, someone treats an Orc with some humanity then the group begins moving away from that same line. Of course, if the group continues to interact with Orcs afterward as just monsters to kill mindlessly, a line has been crossed.
Here, the discussion of the symbol turns to its appearance, its skin. These are details that clothe the deeper symbolic meaning. The skin can include any mode of physical description that gives the symbol a physical presence in the game world. As this description is often given by and sometimes written by the Gamesmaster this descriptive skin can cause a negative interaction with the Orcish core. Writers trip all of the time into the same pitfall. Indeed, as previously discussed Tolkien fell into it himself. This is because sometimes when borrowing from real-life and historical cultures these purloined details become coding and handled really badly can become racial coding.
This occurs when the identifying features of an ethnicity or race are pasted onto a fictional fantasy race serving not to make the fantasy more realistic but to associate the fictional beings with actual human beings and their culture thereby making the fictional race a stand-in. Note this can also occur with the use of language especially when building an imaginary scene within the minds of the players during play depends on the accumulation of detail.
As an example, Orcs are often coded as Mongols or Native Americans, which draws parallels and comparisons to the real world cultures and the Orc. It’s best not to do this. As mentioned prior, it is a common technique for Gamesmasters and Game-Writers to borrow details wholesale from real-life cultures and graft them onto fantasy races but in the context of Orcs, this practice is simply not a good strategy. Better things to do are diversify their culture, personify them, come up with a unique culture and cultural artifacts such as in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies or borrow details from more original fiction.
Symbols can carry multiple meanings and may vary from person-to-person based on personal experience and individual knowledge especially their emotional reaction to a given symbol. It is what the symbol has come to mean to them due to their personal life experience. Considering this, sensitivity to how someone else would read the Orcs’ symbolic qualities juxtaposed with its political and racist aspects is of high importance, especially when writing adventures and planning RPG campaigns. Ideally, if you want people to join your group, play in your game, sit at your table, you should be sensitive to their sincere concerns (Suggested Video: The Most Important Point About Orcs). The worst thing to do is publicly wave away such concerns with a lazy dismissal.
Dismissing any of the furors around the idea of the Orc is very common and typically takes 4 different forms, all of which are utterly off base[.]
Dismissing any of the furors around the idea of the Orc is very common and typically takes 4 different forms, all of which are utterly off base, the first being a reliance on false information.
There are plenty of misconceptions about Tolkien floating around the internet although he is a pretty well-documented author. Despite that, there is still a fair amount of misinformation swirling around him. Likewise, there is misinformation swirling around the Orc ever since its adoption in roleplaying games, recently it only gets worse. One false claim that occurs ad nauseam is Orcs modeled after WWI German troops, which has already proven to be false elsewhere in this article. Another is the Martial Race fallacy (see also: The Myth of Martial Races) that like the Evil Race Trope is dismissed easily with the same argument, the reason being both ideas are fundamentally problematic.
The next argument used as a dismissal is the Diegetic Argument. This is the notion that Orcs as a purely evil monster race works for the game or makes sense within the fictional world. This is especially so when addressing the racism inherent in Tolkien’s original design. This is the Thermian Argument as put forth by Dan Olsen. The Thermian Argument is an argument that seeks to dismiss criticism and analysis of a fictional work on the basis the thing(s) being criticized have in-universe justification ignoring the fact that in a fictional universe the thing is there because a writer put it there. In fact, the entire fictional universe exists because someone created it. Now, even if the race is evil as a point of authorial intent then the prejudices of the author do play a part. Even if something is justified in the game world, it still was placed there by someone whose personal biases and attitudes determine at least in part, that thing’s existence and injects some of its substance into the resulting symbol. This brings us to the argument that Orcs are pure fiction.
The ‘Orcs aren’t real so none of this matters’ dismissal is on its face disingenuous. If fiction did not matter then movies, novels, and tabletop roleplaying games would not be so ubiquitous and emotionally engage fandoms on the level that they do.
This dismissal also disregards the players around the table. As the use and misuse of orcs due to certain elements of their construction and directions in their evolution as an RPG race can hurt those sensitive to these symbolic aspects then the sheer fact that they can carry an emotional impact is proof that the fantasy does indeed matter. If orcs are monster-fodder and there are no objections from around your table, then there is no problem but dismissing the impact of Orcs and the ignoring of their symbolic weight experienced by certain individuals is foolish. A very real-world example being, racist caricatures are fiction i.e. not real but they still inflict very real harm.
Speaking of racism, this specific argument also has a more insidious second clause on occasion. This is that since Orcs are unreal so you seeing them as stand-ins for people of color make you racist because you are inserting race-politics where they do not exist. This is an attempt to reverse the flow of the conversation and deflect it onto the one making the case for the racial/political potency of the Orc. It is a schoolyard “No, you’re racist!” troll and utterly stupid. Elsewhere in this article, the case has already been made for the racially charged roots of the Orc.
This brings us to the last argument for dismissal, the Biological Argument. The Biological Argument is that the Orc is biologically inclined to be a predator. This is the very opposite of the "Orcs Aren't Real" argument and falls short of the previously discussed Diegesis angle. This is often used as a dismissal against the accusations leveled at Tolkien’s design. However, they ring false as he was not in any way concerned with any such "hard" aspects that are common to later fantasy fiction that applies scientific or logical (like) ideas to shape the fantasy world in a believable way or towards some point.
This argument can include the discrimination between obligate carnivore predators and prey, which is reasonable (this is where some animal racial allegorical stories fail). If the prey is an intelligent species then a natural animosity will be evident. Prejudice and social discrimination built right in. Questions of the effects of nurturing on the natural drives of intelligent beings can be explored under this premise. This does have some real potential but Orcs of this type do not have a direct lineage back to Tolkien other than the name and a general appearance that has come from a fictive evolution. They are offshoots that are more recent and closely related to the “Revisionist Orcs”. As a point in defense of Tolkien, this argument is useless.
Although using Orcs themselves in your game is not inherently racist even in a villainous context there can be an unseen line within the idea of all Orcs are evil.
From Inception, Orcs have been painted as evil and compared to people of color – So are Orcs racist? The answer to this question depends on how they are described, what words are used to describe them, and in context to their role in the game. How are they being portrayed? If described using the modern “monstrous” appearance with no race coding then no. On the other hand, poor or inflammatory word choice in the descriptions of Orcs can absolutely be racist. Using the common colonial signifiers in Orc descriptors such as 'savage', 'alien', 'bestial', 'primitive', and ‘dark-skinned’ among others creates a dehumanizing and racist vibe. Although using Orcs themselves in your game is not inherently racist even in a villainous context there can be an unseen line within the idea of all Orcs are evil.
In context to the evil race aspect, it is possible if the evil is contained within a god, violence and militarism can be cultural, and Orcs being viewed as an evil race rather than that being the ultimate truth of the situation is fine. However, in each of these instances, there will be socio-political structures enforcing the 'evil' status quo and thus reactionaries and organizations not to mention individuals that are opposed to them for the reasons of politics, philosophy, or morality will arise within the Orcish societal body. And right there with just humanizing Orcish systems world-building begins and roleplaying opportunities abound.
Similarly, the monochrome view of the world as black and white and thus the potential for an entire race of beings to be born entirely evil with no redemptive qualities is problematic in and of itself. The Orc has continued to carry symbolic meaning and power from their creation into an expanding and diversifying hobby that is reliant on the exchange and understanding of symbols bringing the emotional perception of those symbols especially the Orc to the forefront of certain political controversies.
The concept of the Orc has at its core certain symbolic meanings inherited from their inception that traditional gaming modes are unable to separate from that fantasy race thus making them politically and publicly divisive.
In conclusion, Orcs or all members from any fantasy race cannot be inherently evil although their culture/religion/necessity/situations may dictate otherwise. The Manichean worldview in this context is false. The rehabilitation of Orcs from restrictive RPG tradition allows the GM more flexibility and potential when using Orcs in their games. Orcs as a symbol for people of color is a valid reaction. This is especially the case when the reactionary elements of geekdom and other outside elements use the Orc as a divisive symbol that alienates those interested in the hobby not mention setting up a divide and deliberately fracturing the community.
The concept of the Orc has at its core certain symbolic meanings inherited from their inception that traditional gaming modes are unable to separate from that fantasy race thus making them politically and publicly divisive. However, in the right context, the more controversial aspects of the Orc are mitigated but they are ever-present.
Afterword or Acknowledging Orcishness
This article is not meant as an excoriation of those who choose to continue to use Orcs as the nameless "bad guy" hordes in their games. Do what you and those around your table are comfortable with and consent to. Just be mindful that the Orc is simply not just the "bad guy" or can be simply written off as "born evil". They are not purely victim or a "noble race", another fallacy by the way. Neither is it purely racist to include them in your game as the opposing force. Just be mindful of the subtleties and symbolic meanings that they carry. There is a lot of nuance contained within the grotesque humanoid framework of the Orc. They are much more complex than simplistic monsters or even just another fantasy race.
This article also does not intend to tell gamers not to use Orcs in their games but acknowledges that Orcs can be just as deep and interesting as any other fantasy race even when taking on the role of villains in the traditional mold. Orcs could appear filthy and scum-loving to their enemies due to their not bathing while on the warpath. They might have a unique single-mindedness (probably cultural) that they will not do much else but try to meet their goal and so an Orc military unit will seem relentless and inevitably acquire grit from travel and battle. This might play into more straightforward war tactics probably seen as simply brutal by their enemies and their acquired filth and intense focus would definitely play as a primary component of Orc strategy on the battlefield. For example, intimidation would be a viable tactic when facing down an enemy force as skirmishers or a shield wall.
We can follow this line of thought and acquire a ritual found in the bible concerning the Hebrew armies. Post-battle, the soldiers returning to camp would stay outside of the camp for 7 days while participating in a cleansing ritual (Numbers 31: 19-21) which would serve to psychologically prepare them for reduced stress and possibly to keep them from communicating a foreign disease into the camp. As Orc warriors coming home from battle would realistically be filthy and probably during their headlong travels would not be averse to swimming through cesspools to get to an enemy, their society would find a need to institute such a ritual to protect itself.
All of this would be lost if the Orc is just a monster and not utilized as a fantasy race it would also give reasons for their appearance as wholly evil monsters very akin to actual history. The precedent in history being the Mongols and how their enemies and victims viewed them, the same cloth from which they were originally cut. However, this time using a different pattern and taking into account a wider picture. Attitudes towards the Mongols were shaped not just by the brutalization of war but also their tactics on the field, the now classic, ride-by bow fusillade followed by feint-retreat then immediately followed another fusillade or a straight on charge when the enemy ranks weakened. Orcs, likewise, could develop devastating tactics fitted to their strengths.
Orcs could be raiders and conquerors and be viewed as a singular entity under a singly named and famous warlord giving credence to their image as a faceless horde. They could have tactics viewed as unfair, brutal, or simply dishonorable by the conquered and especially the threatened. Orc society as a conquering force would not be viewed favorably by outsiders or the conquered especially if they also engage in raids for supplies and/or profit. To be fair, conquest and raids historically have been brutal and viewed by the victims and their descendants as devastatingly evil events (Imperialism/Colonialism).
Viewing the Orc as such even though it retains a patina of the traditional role as monster allows for Orc player characters, which can add a lot of drama between characters in more role-play oriented situations and humanizing when certain rituals and habits are observed by companions (essentially "not all orcs" but without the cynical political divisiveness). This also goes for individuals judged by the reputations of their people in areas where they would be a minority where they sometimes have to take up criminal occupations like highwaymen or even assassins to survive.
An Orc treated with the same nuance and depth of a traditional fantasy race can add a great deal to the game while putting more kit into the Gamesmaster’s bag.
- Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manichaeism
- Warren, Mary Anne. On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion pdf, https://www.douglasficek.com/teaching/phil-2222/warren.pdf. pg.5, pp.30.
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. George Allen & Unwin Publishers Ltd. 1981.
- Tolkien, Christopher ed., Morgoth’s Ring, Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.
- Tolkien, J.R.R., The Book of Lost Tales: Part Two. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
- Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Company/Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.
- Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth, Harper-Collins, London. 2003. Pgs.218-219
© 2020 Robert A Neri Jr
Dandier Steel from Lille, France on August 28, 2020:
Thanks for your well thought article Robert !
Jay tee on August 27, 2020:
as a person of color the whole orc thing doesn't bother me, but when i hear the comments of orclivesmatter jokingly said at every table i go to it takes away the fun of the game for me. Players who kill orcs then rape the woman and inslave the children brings nothing to the game. So DM seem to jumpn on board with behavior. While i will sit there and say what happen to rolling dice, take away hp and win the battle. Sometimes it crosses my mind do these people want to act on this feelinga in real life? In my game of wildmount their is a town if bandits and orcs and gnolls. What my players understand the differences of economic classes more than race which i feel is based more in our realty.