Why My Orcs Are Monsters

Why My Orcs Are Monsters

The current discourse, and a discourse that has been around for a while, has been on the topic of "Evil Races".

The discourse has been long talked about, and I'm not going to give a full or in-depth summary here. The crux of the discussion is: "should an entire race be evil in D&D", one side believes "yes Orcs, and Goblins, and Devils, and Demons, and many other monsters can be entirely evil, so I can use them as monsters" and the other side believes somewhere on the spectrum of "let me play my cool orc character they aren't all evil" to "those very ideas are rooted in racist rhetoric at the core of the origins of the hobby".

So here's my completely unrequested take on the topic. Hopefully this article doesn't get me cancelled.

I'm going to lead by giving my high level take, and then dive into the details of why that's my take.

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It is okay to say that for your setting, and in your games, you wish to give a gravitas of sapience and free-choice to all, and to have evil be a choice that is made by many of the traditionally "monsterous" races, then it is your right to do so. Many, and myself, wish for a more simplistic world in their game: a world where there are monsters, which are strange and unexplainable to the players; monsters that cannot be reasoned with, or debate moral philosophy. Evil monsters.

That out of the way, lets go into the details of why I think that.

What is a monster?

Monsters are a concept straight out of fairy tales. They are the supernatural beings of malice that inhabit a world. They go bump in the night. A wolf is a beast, fearesome and a great threat to a traveller. A dire wolf is something far more sinister entirely—A wolf kills to survive, a dire wolf kills for fun. A bandit gang may be made of people down on their luck and trying to steal to get by, but a Goblin gang wants to eat your ears just because they think it would be fun. A foreign army wishes to invade your land for new fertile soil and profit for their king, an Orc army wishes to invade your land to kill your people, burn your crops, and leave the land unarable for decades to come.

The motives of monsters are inscrutible, they are inhuman, and they fundamentally do not obey the logic of a normal person. You could bribe a bandit gang attacking your party on the road. No bribery will save you from Goblins that hunger for fresh ears. You could negotiate with a foreign army. No words will quell an Orcish bloodlust.

You could not dissuade a direwolf from its hunt, anymore than little red riding hood could convince the wolf not to eat her.

This, is the space I intend Orcs to exist within. As a group they represent a kind of fairy-tale-monster-army. An infestation of hatred and death to be rooted out by chivalrous heroes. An individual Orc is like a starved and aggressive boar, given humanoid form and an imitation of sapience. It is not truly sapient, not in the way a demi human might be, it is still a starved and hateful wild boar, but made to look like a man to deceive you.

The Roots of the Hobby, Racism

A commonly brought up fact is the way Orcs are presented at the root of the hobby. I'm going to address both in turn.

First, Tolkiens Orcs. Those who would decry this as a racist depiction will usually point to this quote:

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

In which Tolkien describes how Orcs looked. I'll concede, it certainly doesn't hold up to todays standards of political correctness. You can argue semantics about this one for days, and the exact bracketing intended, but it's not a good look. It would be easy to see how one could conclude that Orcs as an allegory would be of a negative depiction of brown skinned peoples from the middle east and north africa.

He gives, I would say, a far more nuanced take in a later letter to his Son.

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in 'realistic' fiction ... only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For 'romance' has grown out of 'allegory', and its wars are still derived from the 'inner war' of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels.

In this, I think it is clear that his perception of Orcs as an allegory is not of any once race or peopes, but of evil. Orcs to him, are in their very conception, a representation of evil.

From a theological perspective, the legendarium has its roots in Christian mythology, and in the later verisons of this Orcs were a corruption of Men away from the vision of Eru (God) by Morgoth (Satan). In earlier versions, and in the legends of the elves as known in the third age, they were the same but of Elves. In this regard, he see's them as not any one race, though they are presented as this, but instead a consequence of the corruption of evil. The Orcs do not come from one group of men, but from many men, taken and corrupted by a supernatural being throughout history.

Tolkien battled with his conception of Orcs for many years. Writing often on their nature, and debating if their soul (be it from the men or elves they were originally derived from) was something that could be redeemed and saved by god. If there could be a good Orc? He reached no satisfying conclusion on this topic.

Gygax, however, in his original conception of Orcs in OD&D, gives us basically four usefull facts on them:

  1. They are hirable as mercenaries (though possible difficult to find), and cheaper than men in upkeep cost.
  2. Orcs live in tribes, these tribes do not get along
  3. Orcs live in caves or villages
  4. Orcs will fight until outnumbered 3-1, then begin making morale checks

This doesn't tell us much about Orcs, they are certainly more personable as they are hirable, and may live in villages, and have some form of internal tribal structure. They are certainly more than mere beasts. Jumping forward a bit into AD&D, we get the following:

Pig Headed Orcs
Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration—brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen-highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hairisdark 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, yellowgreen, moss green, greenish purple, and blackish brown. They live for40 years.

Alongisde similar commentary on the competetiveness of Orc tribes. While presenting them as intelligent and tribal, they are aligned as "lawful evil", in his depiction he uses a far more beast like form than Tolkien would. Taking the form of pig-headed men. In addition, we are given one further commentary on their views.

Orcs are cruel and hate living things in general, but they particularly hate
elves and will always attack them in preferencetoother creatures. They
take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc.) but not elves
whom they kill immediately.

And lastly

As orcs will breed with anything, there are any number of unsavory mongrels with orcish blood, particularly orc-goblins, orc-hobgoblins, and orc-humans. Orcs cannot cross-breed with elves. Half-orcs tend to favor the orcish strain heavily,sosuch sorts are basically orcs although they can sometimes (10%) pass themselves off as true creatures of their other stock (goblins, hobgoblins, humans, etc.).

I'm not going to defend Gygax here. A lot of this is a bad read. It doesn't look good. It doesn't hold up to modern sensibilities. I wouldn't fault anyone for taking great issue with it.

I think the key conflict that both Tolkien, and Gygax battle with here, is one of wanting to grant the Orcs intelligence, will, and sapience. Community and the ability to have independent desires. To be truly people. Then to have them serve as a core antagonist and an acceptable target. Both have solved this dissonance with various degrees of appropriateness.

While both use wording to describe them that is clear to look upon unfavourably, describing them as brown skinned and ugly for it. They both have different takes on the other aspects of this problem. For Tolkien, in them being corrupted by the will of Morgoth, it does not matter if they are redeemable, for those encountering them do not have time to redeem them. In stories of war and battle, no time can be given to question the moral integrity of the enemy. Simply to hold on in an often losing battle against the powers of darkness. For gygax, he chose to make them full of hatred and a distaste for other living beings without giving a full explanation of why. One might believe this is similar to the Daleks from doctor who, that Orcs themselves are simply increadibly racist towards non-Orcs. I do not think that from these texts and my limited understanding of who Gygax was as a person I can give a full representation of what his views may have been however.

Within Modern D&D

Within Modern D&D, there is another problem thrown into this. Orcs as a playable race. This grants them unquestionable human-like sapience and morality, and forces the person running to justify their player Orcish player character, and the differences between them and other Orcs, within the setting. There are many in lore reasons for many settings that have been written to explain why Orcs are bloodthirsty, and what curses from which gods a player character Orc will have to fight against. But the problem this creates is actually a much simpler one: Orcs aren't monsters anymore. You can't be a Dire Wolf, you can't be a Vampire, you can't be a Witch. These are monsters. You can be an Orc. You can experience the world of the game through the eyes of an Orc. For this, they cannot be wholey monsterous.

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. They are usually chaotic evil.
Most orcs have been indoctrinated into a life of destruction and slaughter. But unlike creatures who by their very anture are evil, such as gnolls, it's possible that an orc, if raised outside its culture, could develop a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion. No matter how domesticated an orc might seem, its blood lust flows just beneath the surface. With its instinctive love of battle and its desire to prove its strength, an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.

Yikes. If that doesnt' read like "the savage indians in need of civilizing by the white man" I don't know what does. That's from 5e by the way, published in 2016, about a week after the US elected trump to put it into historical context.

So yeah, I get where the argument about needing to redefine the Evil of Orcs comes from. But here's the thing

My Solution

To solve the problem of Orcs having sapience and intelligence, and being creatures of their own philosophy and morals. And having them be a monster. I'm chosing to not do the former. They are just monsters. No different to a dire wolf. They are given an illusion of intelligence by forces unknown, they probably pass a turing test if you were simply observing them interacting with each other, but cut off from other Orcs or asked to debate with men an Orc has no more going on behind its eyes than a pig. They cannot be civilized or saved. They are not playable. They are monsters that go bump in the night. They act without reason or thought. In form they are humanoid wild boards with flattened snouts and largened tusks.  They want to burn your farm just because the massive field fire is pretty. They want to kill you because your dying screams are music to their ears. They want to fight others and each other to the death because the visceral unrestrained violence is fun to them. They are not creatures that can be reasoned with or understood. They are monsters from a fairy tale.

My hope, is that this creates a clean solution to a messy problem. It removes the more racially tone-deaf descriptions of Orcs using stereotypes from real world human races and places them firmly within the realm of the bestial. It removes the cultural 'white savior' narrative by making that an entirely impossible occurance. It creates Orcs that can serve in their purpose as low-level acceptable-target fodder-monsters. It sacrifices, willingly, their ability to be anything more than that, to be player characters, or to hold important roles as NPCs.

This is a trade off I chose to make.


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Post Publishing Discussions
What follows are thoughts from conversations provoked by the publishing of this article.

What about baby orcs? Where do orcs come from?

Orcs are actually much more like wild boars in the juvenile part of their lifecylce. You'll never find a room full of helpless child Orcs, just 1 HP orclets. Something happens in their life that causes them to stand on their hind legs and gain humanoid form, but nobody has ever witnessed this process as Orcs do it deep underground in caves, and the process will not happen unless total privacy from non-Orc-kind is achieved.

Goblins, and many goblinoids, are a kind of fungus. They grow from spores until near fully formed. They have a life cycle, but no part of it is particularly "juvenile".

Similar approaches can be taken for most any "monsterous" race. Witches are not born, they are taught (by other witches). Dire wolves are more like regular wolves until they come into their power.