Thursday, March 4, 2010

Everybody Loves Orcs (Except Me)

They do.

Orcs are so handy. I mean, as a concept. One of the more offensive aspects of D&D-style fantasy is how races all get assigned particular personalities and natures. It really just sort of supports the whole notion of ethnic profiling, only this is even worse -- whole species getting branded with a single character.

But virtually every fantasy RPG has "orcs" of some fashion or other, mainly in order to provide bad guys that nobody needs to feel bad about killing a lot. D&D of course has a dozen or so variations on the "orc" theme, all twisted and evil in different ways, but all needing killing. A lot. Hobogblins, gnolls, mongrelmen, whatever you call them, they're just human beings who have no right to live, and so delivering them to death is what good guys do.

Personally, I find it boring. Why would any sentient race NOT develop the breadth of personalities and philosophies that human beings do? Most of these races are described in such a pathetically narrow way that it's really impossible to imagine. Hobgoblins like order and discipline. Goblins are impish and savage. And so on. There cannot be thoughtful gnolls, orcs are never swayed by appeals to compassion or long-term interest. These races are thin, amateurish cartoons of human beings -- which can work in some games, to be sure (Kobolds Ate My Baby, for one (by the way, Kobolds Ate My Baby is, like, the greatest game EVER, if you don't know)).

I like what Joshua has done with his last few campaigns -- the "monstrous" humanoids are just other races and everyone more or less kinda sorta gets along. Works best without elves, of course, but then so much does. Let's not discuss elves.

Anyway, the monstrous races are almost always used as this cheap way to have thrills without cost. Like the demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- technically, right, they're demons, so Buffster can just murder them right left and center and never feel a twinge of guilt, but... A lot of the demons that start turning up seem awfully... not so terrible. Just kind of plain folks, really, who have a line or three and then get Buffercized. And then there seem to be some demons that don't ever get killed, and just hang out with everyone else. I don't get it, but more to the point, I don't LIKE it (I guess that's coming clear), since it sucks all the actual human drama out of the situation. All the killing ceases to matter, ceases to be exciting on anything other than the most trivial of levels.

Which, again, is fine in a cartoon where kobolds are running around stealing babies. But for a game I'm going to invest the time to run a campaign in, insufficient.

Which is why DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND doesn't have any races other than people. People are good. You have people, you have everything.

All that aside, Claudio did a pretty awesome job on this half-orc picture. That guy looks MEAN.


  1. It turns out that I don't hate elves as much as I've sometimes thought I did. I'm still wary of them, though. Nasty, sneaky things.

    Anyway, yeah... I've never liked the idea of "these guys are just always bad, so let's just kill them on sight and not worry about it." What a boring paradigm. I think I actually got interested in the idea of having multiple "races" without them being "evil" by thinking about Pleistocene settings. Mostly that was so I could have cave lions, saber-tooths and mammoths running around in the setting, but it isn't too far from there to wonder what happens when Homo sapiens comes across Homo neanderthalis or lingering populations of Homo erectus? Well, that was, frankly, a little too dry for my taste, so I decided to just use the familiar "monstrous" races and say, "Hey! Maybe they're not really monsters. A bit barbaric and weird looking, and what's with those tusks, anyway, but otherwise just as much a 'person' as any regular old human would be, right?" Which led to it being common for me to assume orcs and hobgoblins are just races. If my campaign setting were the equivalent of ancient Rome, then the orcs and hobgoblins wouldn't be any more barbaric, strange or weird than ancient Britons or Persians would be.

    Which I guess begs the question: why even bother with these races at all, then? I'm not sure I know, to be honest with you. I guess I just think it's interesting to wear a funny rubber mask and pretend like I'm sitting in the cantina in Mos Eisley or something.

    Claudio's art was also partly responsible. Compared to the "official" art, his orcs, half-orcs, and goblinoids look a lot more "personable" and much less monstrous. It really leads you to believe that they could integrate into society, where the art of orcs, which anymore is strongly influenced by the naked green ape paradigms of Warhammer or Warcraft, just don't look sufficiently person-like to evoke that kind of response.

  2. Honestly, I think you're being overly harsh.

    Mapping culture to race is a fantasy trope as old as the RPG hobby (thanks, Tolkien!). In the real world, some cultures are barbaric, some are civilized, some are corrupt, some are holistic, some are nomadic, and so on. It just so happens that in D&D the cultures conveniently look a lot more physically different from each other. I just see this as an extension of the "Everything is BIGGER" paradigm of the fantasy world.

    And frankly, people have been breaking these very same racial stereotypes in the game since the game began. Gygax had genial orcs and con-artist dwarves in his original modules. In all my years of gaming even some of the most shallow campaigns played involved a fair bit of "breaking from type", often to comic effect.

    I haven't ever really gotten a sense of overly negative connotations to the often blatant racial stereotyping that plays out in the D&D fantasy world. I won't deny that it's there, it most definitely is, but Gygaxian naturalism was pretty clearly "in on the joke" from the get-go.

  3. I think you're being a bit unfair to Tolkien to interpret him that shallowly. Tolkien did have races that D&D imitated, and yes, those races had cultures... but it wasn't a one for one correspondance. Tolkien did something quite a bit more interesting, by hinting here and there at more cultures within these races. Tolkien did, however, also know where to draw the line with showing off setting material for it's own sake, so a lot of that is only hinted at because it never came into the limelight of the specific story that he was telling. Tolkien also had quite a few points where he hinted that some of the "villainous" cultures may have been the victims of bad propoganda and having been exploited by Sauron or Saruman rather than being actually evil (Haradrim and Dunlendings in particular get this vibe.) So, I don't know that you can say that Tolkien is the cause of this paradigm; rather it was an extremely facile and shallow interpretation of Tolkien.

    But possibly I'm slipping into overly defensive Tolkien fan mode here.

    I do agree that in specifically gaming terms, the paradigm goes back to the very beginning. Then again, my complaint (as opposed to barsoomcore's) isn't that its offensive, it's just that its boring and simplistic and doesn't offer me much that I feel is important to my games. After all, there aren't any orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls or whatever to actually be offended by the stereotypes that are associated with them. But I don't see a lot of value in disposible red shirts that you can always kill with impunity because "they're the bad guy." Or, even if I do want to have a few of those, there's no reason to make them a monstrous "race" to accomplish that.

  4. Of course, another key element of my evolution towards "orcs aren't necessarily evil" is the fact that I've completely done away with alignment in any game I've run anytime over the last ten years. Or more.

    Hard to have officially evil orcs if you don't have official evil.

  5. @koboldstyle: I just find the notion of "bad guys it's okay to kill" dull. It's much more interesting to me if the bad guys are just bad because they want reasonable things that the good guys don't.

    My campaigns tend to be overloaded with bad guys, but rarely are they what you'd consider out-and-out evil -- they just have a goal that's in opposition to what the PCs want, and there's no way for both groups to get what they want.

    I like it when my PCs think twice before exterminating a bunch of bad guys.