Friday, 23 September 2011

On Orcs

I noticed zzarchov posted something in response to my post the other day about orcs, from which this sentence interested me:

Now,  while I like the options there for making weird orcs,  at that point I figure they aren't Orcs.  They are goatmen or monkey demons or what have you.

I leave the question of when a mutant orc becomes a goatman or a monkey demon to the philosophers, but I feel like something has to be said about what orcs are and how I think of them.

The first point to be made is one which I'm sure you will agree with if you have been playing D&D for any length of time: orcs in mainstream D&D are fucking dull. They don't have any of the class or charisma of Warhammer orcs (who in my experience they often get conflated with anyway) and actually they probably shouldn't really exist at all: orc is just a different word for goblin in the key text, The Lord of the Rings. Worst of all, their role as the Bad Guy of Choice for the first 4 or so character levels in your typical stereotyped D&D campaign makes cliched and boring; familiarity with the orc has bred contempt.

Orcs also, for good or ill, seem to have taken on a lot of cultural baggage over the years. (I mean, just take a look at this thread.) Their role as iconic adversary leads to them being co-opted for all kinds of political arguments surrounding D&D: why are orcs 'evil'?, isn't killing them just for being orcs genocide?, etc. etc. This is problematic if, like me, you're not particularly interested in such matters but your fellow players are.

Finally, orcs in their mainstream form just don't fit with the kind of campaign settings I like. Orcs feel somehow European in a sense I don't find particularly interesting; and even if I ever run a campaign with a faux-European flavour I'd be more likely to fill it with fae creatures anyway. I don't mind reskinning goblins for a faux-Asian sort of setting, but there's only so much of that you can do before it gets old.

So, to the nub of the matter: these days, I don't use orcs. Or, at least, there is not a race of beings called 'orcs' in my games.

But this doesn't mean the word is unknown - I prefer it to mean something a little more abstract: 'orc' in noismsworld is an umbrella term for a wide variety of different races (in Yoon-Suin, goblins, yak folk, su-monsters, grasshopper men, and more besides) which could basically be defined as "things which are evil, not human, and hostile to humans".

'Orc', in this context, means something a little like the original meaning of 'Satan' - they are, simply, the enemy. They are the unknowable, unknown, despised and hateful other. What they are is up to me and whatever the game I'm running. Are they a race of humanoid crocodiles? Goatmen? Monkey demons? Humanoid crayfish with crows' heads? They could be anything and everything, but if they are Our Enemy then they are orcs, and that is that.


  1. and yet I do like the goblin/orc as a PC race - the idea that you could play the near abroad, that there are demihumans that are not safe or predictable (thinking here of the vanilla elf and dwarf), and that those maligned races could provide some insight into the underworld for the group.

    But the more I read of your blog the more I see that just not being part of what you're aiming at.

  2. There's some kind of bridge between this approach and the approach to humanoids I took in Varlets & Vermin, where their exact physical characteristics are not as important to define as their way of life and fighting.

    Social science, by the way, also backs up the general idea that people tend to lump similar weird folk together ("outgroup homogeneity" is the technical term).

  3. ...Mike Monaco wrote a whole screed about this, which I think goes some way toward explaining how orcs became domesticated in D&D and why debates about genocide tend to center on them - it's a simple question of boundaries, I reckon: if you could consider a half-orc suitable for a PC, then half-orcs (and by extension orcs) must be "people" and not "monsters."

    Which leads me to an artistic question regarding setting. If you have a Mythic Underworld and take advantage of its Romantic resonances of menace and all that, you're pretty much painted into a hard black-and-white, moral-absolutist world, aren't you? Sure, humans could occupy shades of grey but to the extent they align with the Underworld it's like aligning with Cthulhu - beyond the pale. Must be stopped.

    I myself am too much of a relativist to pull off running a Revelationsy game. My tastes run more toward polytheism and natural mysticism, where humans are only one kind of actor on a complex stage. But I can't help thinking that I lose some drama by embracing that complexity.

    So I'm thinking about what you said, regarding dungeon traders in the upper levels and hell below, and wondering where, then, the goblinoids stand. Are they another race, like humans, that has the misfortune to fall under the DM's evil claw, or are they expressions of the Underworld vomited up, and the idea of trading with them is absurd? (and then who are the undertraders?)

    ...for as much as I like orcs as reviled minorities, I also like them being spat out by some deep, dark shoggoth-mother to do mischief in the upper world. That's why they have gold teeth - so that some bit of them can continue to spread discord even after they've been killed.

  4. The distinction I like best is that orcs are made, not born. They're supernatural creatures. You're not going to find a village of orcs with orc children running around. In Tolkien, orcs were literally created by the devil in mockery of god's creatures in the bowels of the megadungeon that was itself hell. Those orcs have been conflated with Warhammers football hooligans, and the resulting hybrid is less interesting than either.

  5. richard: I try to marry both the "classicist" and "romanticist", where possible. So there are demihumans, and other humanoid races, who can be traded with and what have you, living in the dungeon. But I also like the idea of implacable, demonic and genuinely evil "others" who are out there in the world and will do horrible things to you if they find you.

    Roger the GS: Ultimately the stats all boil down to the same thing anyway, right? If hobgoblins, orcs, bullwugs, mongrelmen, etc. all have 1+1 HD, one attack, and die for 35 XP, what's so important about the distinctions between them? And by the same token, why not have literally hundreds of different types, rather than just 5 or 6 as we get in the MM?

    Richard again: Interesting comment! Yes, my world is absolutist in the sense that there is an "us and them", with "us" being "the things that can at least trade with each other and relate to each other on some level" and the "them" being "the horrid evil things belched out from the abyssal underworld that are totally implacable, alien and terrifying". There are lots of different races in the first category, and some of them live in the dungeon (they can be traded with). There are also lots of different races in the second category, and some of them live on the surface.

    John: Yes, I agree. There's an M. John Harrison essay about this that I like, to do with ruining the essence of Tolkien's creation by cataloguing it too thoroughly and making it mundane.

    Once you start thinking about the ecology of orcs, their social relations, and so forth, they become knowable and to a certain extent sympathisable-with. This makes them increasingly banal and less fantastical, and hence, basically, a bit boring.

  6. I don't always use orcs, but I when I do.. they are warhammer orks.

    It is posts like these that make me realise how out of mainstream my gaming experiences have been. As a player I think I had only ever fought orc's twice. So I never really got used to them as a staple. Using Orc to just mean "Humanoid Monster" is a nice touch (Though I love Orks too much personally to not use Da'Boyz from time to time)

  7. Any orcs I use would be Warhammer's Chaotic Hedonist variety, but I do like your idea of "orc" being a buzzword for all those 1-2HD humanoids lurking in the dark places of the world. Slap the WFRP d1000 mutation table or something like it on top, and you're done.

  8. Once you start thinking about the ecology of orcs, their social relations, and so forth, they become knowable and to a certain extent sympathisable-with.

    This is the problem in a nutshell. Orcs are supposed to be different than ghouls or rats, say, in that they are an organized tribal kind of force. They use tactics and have goals, customs, and language.

    But, if you utilize this as a DM you end up with something very similar to aboriginal tribes and all the baggage that is fraught with. If you don't, you lose the organized learnable foe that orcs represent.

    I my game, I've gone the latter route and men have pretty much had to fill in that role. But then, that's not optimal either because you lose the whole-- they're evil kill them with no guilt-- aspect.

  9. That's a false dichotomy, I think. The original concept of orcs is essentially a sort of minor demon. They're organised and intelligent because they're the footsoldiers of evil. They have thoughts and feelings of their own, but they're what you'd expect from servants of hell - base impulses and self-centredness warring with fear of their masters. Tolkien gets a lot of stick from D&D players, but if you're going to use orcs I think you're pretty much stuck using something like his ideas of them, because as you point out the alternative doesn't really work.

  10. I really like the idea of orcs as the unknownable, despised, and alienated other.

    I think orcs can fill whatever role necessary, it just depends on how you use them. Medieval monsters often symbolized some dangerous natural occurrence. So if orcs live underground, like the did in Tolkiens mythos, and come up for raids that could be an important aspect that describes how they live and what they represent without getting too much into their ecology. Underground orcs could invade cities by causing the earth to shake and crack and then through those cracks they come out to loot, pillage, and burn. The orc in this case represents the danger and destruction of an earthquake. You can still use the orcs in a large scale organized warfare, but they don't necessarily have to be a political force that can be reasoned with. If you really want to freak your players out, maybe after a couple months of occupation, the orcs just leave the city in shambles without a trace.

    If orcs represent the reviled minorites, you could put them on every encounter table, at least as a slim chance to show that they don't have a homeland. They have been expelled from every land, now they simply wander the world spiteful of their lot in life. This makes them easy enemies and "good" kills for "civilized" races because orcs will lash out at anything. Maybe a groups of orcs could ban together to take over a city, but in-fighting always causes them to split up. If the monster is symbolic, instead of realistic, then you can impose rules that they must follow.

    To showcase the otherness of orcs they could be a combination of different types animals. This idea was inspired by the goblins in Magic: the Gathering's Lorwyn cycle. The Lorwyn goblins didn't have a single look to them; they could have vaguely human, or frog, or pig, or goat features. Unlike in other Magic sets, where goblins had a standardized appearance, these goblins had a patchwork aesthetic to them. It wasn't like there were different types of goblin either - the goat goblins weren't mountain goblins and the pig goblins were swamp goblins, they all lived together as goblins.

  11. "Once you start thinking about the ecology of orcs, their social relations, and so forth, they become knowable and to a certain extent sympathisable-with. This makes them increasingly banal and less fantastical, and hence, basically, a bit boring."

    Am I the only one who was quite keen on the idea of Orkworld, if not its execution? Fraught with errors and incoherences as it was, the idea of knowing the orc and qualifying their difference and dumping that on the roleplayer and saying 'play this, it'll be harder work than the elves or dwarves that you have access to through generic conventions'... that was a good idea.

    I'm starting to wonder if demihumans automatically lose something when they become playable, because that makes them a bit more like us, a bit more knowable, because they're played by humans and there's an accumulation of knowhow on how to do that - or it makes their differences known and knowable, and fails in the way you're describing. Does the Other need to remain Other to preserve any fantasy-cred?

  12. Warhammer/Orc Stain orks are the way to go I find, not so much the comic relief football hooligans part, but the fungal lifecycle/grow beneath the earth stuff, which lets them be both wild barbarians and footsoldiers of evil. And them being fully formed monsters both avoids the moral complexity and makes them a bit sympathetic, or at least pitiable, in my eyes.

    They are mutatable and variable enough to expand into all the monstrous humanoid roles with enough size classes and mutation tables, freeing up space for trolls, goblins and minotaurs to be the weird and mysterious fairytales they should be instead of just another tribe of bad guys.

  13. Zzarchov: I'm not a huge fan of Warhammer orcs outside of that context. A bit too gonzo for my games.

    Kelvin: I like that idea, but aren't you a bit disappointed they didn't come up with a d1000 table of mutations that doesn't have 1000 entries?

    Telecanter: This is why I think, for 2nd edition, they gave orcs a Lawful Evil spin: they are evil but organised. Ultimately it came down to a race who live for war and pursue conflict for its own ends. They didn't really play this up enough, though.

    Nate: Those are some cool ideas, actually. I like the idea of orcs as "symbolic" monsters, and as roaming, spiteful groups of malcontents.

    Von: I'm not sure what Orkworld is, but yes, I sometimes do think that demihumans lose something in becoming playable. One day I'd like to make a more fantastical campaign setting in which the players can only be humans. I'm not convinced that D&D is the best vehicle for this, however.

    Verdancy: The 'just another tribe of bad guys thing' is weird, isn't it? In our own world, humans have fought against each other in an organised way for thousands of years, yet in D&D campaign settings orcs, goblins and the like have take on the role of being orgainsed antagonists. Why? I'm more of the opinion that all of the fantasy creatures in D&D should be genuinely weird and fantastical, and if you need properly organised and realistic foes you can just have other humans.

  14. Yeah that's why I like the warhammer take on orks. It makes the organisation a weird, fantastical thing- they're less of a species and more of a plague that happen to wear hats. Warhammer orks are really kind of creepy without the cushion of humour, since they have all the trappings of civilisation but they aren't smart enough to understand how or why they do what they do. They are like ants that wear suits.