Here’s my hand at an ‘Orctober’ series, as we spend the rest of the month up close and personal with the problematic humanoid everyone loves to hate.
Thanks to Mike Monaco for providing this excellent and amusing summary of generic fantasy orcs from UK wargame Hordes of the Things:
Although the dictionary definition of orc is merely “monster,” modern authors universally follow the lead of Tolkien in using the term as a synonym for a large goblin. These have not had a fair press. They are fanatically brave in spite of being weaker and less practiced than most other humanoids, and must be kind to animals, since they train them so well. It is interesting that Tolkien’s characters describe them in terms very similar to those used by medieval chroniclers to describe Mongols, who in our day are considered a nice friendly people of slightly eccentric lifestyle. We might instead think of such goblins as a fantasy counterpart of the apocryphal northerner: clannish, rough spoken, given to imbibing of strong but peculiar liquor, keeping analogues of whippets and pidgeons, prone to mob violence at away fixtures and perhaps too easily influenced by radical politicians of other races. –Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker & Richard Bodley Scott, Hordes of the things
They’re Tolkienesque fantasty cliche, over-used and under-utilised, but I love orcs. The be-tusked nemesis of the fledgeling adventurer. The primitive, the bestial, the savage, the demonic. Even as a child reading The Lord of the Rings I always found them more fascinating than the elves and dwarves and hobbits. Maybe it was that bad-boy, underdog appeal. Maybe it was the fact that they were so undeveloped that made them so much more mysterious and compelling. I can’t have been the only one that wanted to know more about what was going on with Shagrat and Gorbag than Elrond and Galadriel, can I? In this series I’m going to try and get to grips with both the great appeal of orcs to me personally, their place in Dungeons and Dragons, and various ideas on how to expand their use in the game.
Us and Them
In D&D, one of the many divisions of the game is between humans and demi-humans on one hand, and humanoids (sometimes ‘goblinoids’ or ‘giant class’) on the other. Demi-humans included elves, dwarves, halfings and gnomes, generally any race that could be selected by player characters. Humanoids were orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, bugbears, and ogres. In D&D’s wargaming roots, these represented the different troop types available on each side (Light vs Darkness, Good vs Evil, Law vs Chaos and what have you). Although player characters may be of any alignment whatever their chosen race, the humanoids are unanimously bad guys, being Chaotic in Basic D&D and various flavours of Evil in AD&D. Being unplayable, unclassed and more tightly bound to antagonistic alignments, the orcs and related humanoids are the quintessential other – they walk, talk and resemble us, but but are in an exclusive and antagonistic group in opposition to ‘us’, the playable humans and demi-humans. On top of that, these humanoid antagonists tend to be low-tech, tribal, shamanistic cultures, which much made of their ugliness, aggression, lack of individuality, intelligence or sophistication, lack of art and culture, etc. It doesn’t take much thought to see the unfortunate implications of this presentation, particularly if one is familiar of colonial depictions of indigenous peoples. If we take the oft-made compsarison of D&D to the Old West, the orcs are the indians. The orc is Grendel. In real-life warfare and imperialism, deliberate dehumanisation of the enemy in order to justify their killing or subjugation is a widespread and longstanding practice that continues to this day. The orc is the incarnation of this deception given life in the game world. The perfect enemy, the bane of civilisation that exists to be negated. This is all fine for some, and I get why. Monolithic evil cannon-fodder orc types allow the PCs to engage large groups of armed humanoid foes without becoming mass slaughterers of their own kind. The presentation of an exaggeratedly evil empire is easier to swallow if their forces are monstrous rather than human. I don’t fall into this camp personally though, and I think it can be rewarding to run humanoids in a way that explores, rather than ignores, their problematic implications.
A lot of what I’m going to say about orcs can also apply to the other races, but I’m going to focus on the orcs for a couple of reasons. One, they’re the iconic humanoid. Whenever you see D&D or analogous game referenced in movies and tv, for example, if a humanoid race is mentioned, it’s typically the orcs. In D&D inspired fantasy product including literature, videogames, tabletop wargames and suchlike, orcs often feature in one way or another, even though the treatment of them varies. Secondly, while Tolkien’s orcs are a race of corrupted elves, and this legacy persists to some small extent in D&D, I would say that in the game, orcs are actually the humanoid version of the standard human. When you square up the PC races against humanoids of roughly equivalent size and ability, you have kobolds as evil gnomes, goblins against dwarves, the Uruk-Hai-esque hobgoblin up against the elves, and the orc staring us humans right in the face. Orcs are human sized and have one hit die. They’re the ‘baseline’ humanoid from which the others deviate from. Most humanoid races and cultures are in their own way distortions of the human baseline, but orcs somehow stands on the same plane, the humanoid-equivalent in the mirror world of the savage humanoids.
Orcs and Humans
So let’s take a look and mankind-orc relations in early D&D. In the original version of the rules (the three little brown books, specifically Men & Magic) orcs are listed under both the Neutral and Chaotic alignment categories (interestingly, so are Ogres and Giants. Tough luck, goblins, hobgoblins and gnolls. You’re all still Chaotic only).
This gives them the same moral range as elves and dwarves, and plenty of leeway to make common cause with PC races. It also helps distinguish the Orcs from the mechanically similar goblins and hobgoblins. Although I have a hard time imagining a band of orcs hanging out with dryad and pixie friends. Alignment in OD&D was not so much an indicator of personality types as an allegiance to a particular side in a cosmic struggle of Law vs Chaos. Still, since the forces of Chaos boast the Evil High Priest and the undead, demons, etc, it’s a pretty clear equivalence of Law with Good and Chaos with Evil. Orcs in this game are far from nice guys, but capable of living in harmony with the rest of the world. The original rules didn’t forbid monster races as player characters, but these groupings were more used to see what kind of allies, henchmen and mounts an adventurer of a particular alignment could have. Thus, a neutral adventurer could ride a dragon and have a mixed entourage with an Elf and an Orc fighting side by side against goblins and ghouls. Or what have you. Wayne R’s fantastic blog explores this idea a little more. It is also of note that in their monster entry orcs are viciously antagonistic towards other tribes of their own species, but commonly associate with other creatures, including dragons, trolls, ogres as well as Fighters and Magic Users (I guess that these Fighters and Magic users are human, though it’s not explicit). They’re also into wagon trains. With regards to the orc-human relationship, note that men can be encountered as ‘monsters’, for example, as bandits or beserkers, and differ little from orc encounters in this regard, save for their classed leaders and lack of infravision. B/X D&D clarified the Law vs Chaos alignment system, making it a more explicit good-evil divide and sadly removing a lot of ambiguity regarding variable creature alignments, shunting the monstrous humanoids all firmly in the ‘C’ category.
The idea of non-evil orcs even has a precedent in Tolkien based on a sentence in The Silmarillion regarding the “War of the Last Alliance”:
‘All living things were divided in that day, and some of every kind, even of beasts and birds, were found in either host, save the Elves only. They alone were undivided and followed Gil-galad.’
This and perhaps the existence of orcs and goblins living an isolated, tribal existence without any direct control from a Dark Lord (Melkor, Sauron, Saruman, etc), is perhaps another reason why orcs also got a pass into the Neutral column.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons put orcs (and other organised humanoids like goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins) into the Lawful Evil camp. The Monster Manual entry includes a lot of fussing about the details of their lair and force composition. Perhaps to shore up their place in the new alignment paradigm, their generally unpleasant nature is detailed and strongly emphasised:
Parts of this entry feel like they were written by a particularly catty personal stylist. Despite ramping up the evil (they are now more explicitly bullies and slavers) and ragging on their particularly disgusting appearance, right down to their choice of colour scheme (and in all fairness, the pig face period is one of the derpiest visual representations of the race), orcs remain one of the more fleshed out and sophisticated humanoid races. They still love caravan journeys, and are fiercely loyal to their tribe and leaders, gaining bonuses when their standard is present. A hatred of elves is introduced, which has been noted to not make a whole lot of sense, given that the races have few overlapping territories or resources to fight over. I’d put it down to an upping of the Tolkien element (funnily enough, in the time of balrog to balors and hobbits to halflings, ents to treants etc). The elves also went through an alignment shift from Lawful leaning to Chaotic Good, so perhaps it made sense to set them against the main Lawful Evil humanoid. The MM entry also details one of the trickier bits of the orcish question, their women and children. Gaming forums abound with players wrestling with the moral dilemma of what to do with orc babies after massacring the fighting males. How this is approached will say a lot about any campaign’s tone regarding humanoids and alignment. The entry for orc is Lawful Evil, for groups of 30-300 plus addition leaders, females and young. Does the alignment dictate their dominant group culture? Allegiance to a specific cause? Or is every orc baby born with a heart of authoritarian cruelty?
The game changer here here is the introduction of half-orcs. The MM passage is full of weirdness, They’ll breed with anything? Except for elves. So…orc-dragons, orc-dwarves, orc-lizardmen, or what? It piles on the unfortunate implications of orcs by making them into rape monsters, with some uncomfortable echoes of Lovecraftians fear of miscegnation and racial deterioration. The orc-goblins and -hobgoblins, being basically orcs, are completely pointless (as if PCs would notice? They’re in the Caves of Chaos to loot them, not carrying out an anthropological study) and never mentioned again except for one in module S4, whose orcish parentage is noted, to absolutely no mechanical or story disctinction because WTF. Only elves in their ubermenschian pure sparkly +1 with swords and bows awesomeness are immune to orcish contamination. There are echoes of Tolkien again here, although IIRC LoTR half-orcs were the result of magical interference rather than sexual compatibility. Then again, if elves and humans can produce viable offspring, and LoTR orcs are corrupted elves, it makes sense. But D&D orcs and elves are not connected in that way…or are they? It would certainly make more sense of why orcs make such an effort to target them. Orcs, humans and elves exist in a strange relationship where both orcs and elves can breed with humans but not with each other. Half-orc and half-elf pairing? Maybe they cancel each other out and make normal humans. A setting that plays this straight implies to me some kind of dark secret tying together the origins of those three races. Certainly, one can make more out of it than the male adventurer who hopes to win the favour of the hot elf chick and the female adventurer who fears violation at the hands of the nasty orc. A quick google image search for ‘sexy orc’ confirms that both ladies and gentleman are getting down with this.
Since orcs and humans can interbreed and produce viable offspring, this adds a whole new dimension to human-orc relations in the campaign world. For one, it brings them closer to us humans but it also adds an extra dimension to politicking in-game, if that’s your thing. In Borderlands-type situations where humans and orcs co-exist in an uneasy cold-but-periodically-warming-up war, there exists the potential for marriage alliances as a solution to these tensions. This fits in well with D&D’s dark ages default setting, and it is, I think, not unreasonable for a community of humans out in the wildlands to forge alliances with orcs in this manner, perhaps with the children of chieftains. Life in the monster-haunted lands is hard enough as it is, and hard pressed orc and human communities might see that they have a lot to offer each other. Adventurers in a Keep on the Borderlands type of scenario might tackle it differently if one of the orc cheiftains has important family members in the human stronghold, trades with humans for commodities, perhaps lending them his tribes services as caravan guards, miners, etc.
So the transition from Original to Advanced D&D has both taken orcs further away from humankind in some aspects, but also brought them together in other important ways. Part 2 in the series will examine the playable incarnation of this, AD&D’s half-orc. Part 3 develops orc tribes in the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, and in part 4 I put forward a few outside the box ideas for using orcs in your games.