Thursday, August 27, 2020

Can Orcs Be Fixed?

UPDATE: In view of recent discussions on the OSR discord server, I'm not sure how much I agree with this initial post I have made anymore. The basic gist of the argument against this post was that it is inherently a colonialist, white supremacist attitude to at all assign any species the role of being a killable Other for the purpose of the game. I'll have to rethink this a bit, but for now I am leaving this blog post up for the consideration of others.

Disclaimer: This article is written from the perspective of a white man, and as a result should be taken with a grain of salt, I am not and never will consider myself to be an expert on racial issues, and the voices of people of color should hold more weight than my own in this context.

D&D's orcs are racist caricatures. This is a bad thing and should not continue.

Those two statements form the premise for the rest of this post, if you fundamentally disagree with those two statements, I don't care about your opinion and I don't want to discuss it with you. If you comment disagreeing about this, I will delete your comment, because I don't care and its not what I want to discuss.

I want to discuss how to fix this problem, and if you have any input on that, I would be very happy to hear from you.

There seem to be two main groups of thought in how to fix orcs. The first is to portray orcs as complicated sentient creatures with emotional depth, rather than sacks of hit points with racial stereotypes tacked on. The second is to try and separate orcs from racial stereotypes, and to instead emphasize their purpose as sacks of hit points.

While the first idea is the most popular, the second idea is the one I like more, though I do understand the first solution and think it has merit and is a valid solution.

My reasoning is that D&D fundamentally needs monsters to fight in order to be a fun game, at least for the kind of game I want to run. And I don't like morally complicated things. Its partially due to the nature of my mental illnesses, which makes me have difficulty seeing in shades of gray, and partially because when I sit down to write or play a game, I do so out of a desire for escapism, and I don't want to have to make difficult moral choices (this isn't to say I want my games to be apolitical, sometimes escapism can be beating the shit out of fictional bigots, and anyone who tries to claim that arts/games/whatever can be apolitical I'm going to have to disagree with). 

So, it is very very obvious that orcs, as they stand now, are not good for my purposes, which is to be uncomplicated monsters. So how can I fix this? 

If I go the more popular root of humanizing orcs, I simply make orcs another species that exists in my world. However, there are three difficulties with this solution, at least for me.

1. If I wanted to go in the direction of portraying orcs as a fantastical version of people of color in a non-offensive and well thought out way, that is very very difficult. It is hard to present a fundamentally non-human being as an analogue for a person of color without it being incredibly racist and in bad taste.
2. Presenting orcs as an analogue for people of color, even if somehow done incredibly respectfully and in a progressive manner, still seems like a way of getting around just having actual people of color in your campaign world, and takes away the spotlight from them somewhat.
3. I still wouldn't have a group of 1 HD monsters for my players to fight without feeling bad about. Which, depending on the game you're running, could be a good thing, but its not what I'm looking for.

There are two other potential solutions that I find would work for me specifically much better.

Solution 1: Orcs as Fascists

Fascists are an easy target for morally simple violence, because a fascist is viewed as evil for good reason. A fascist is violent because they want to be dominant and in control, because they hate difference and want themselves to be the sole power in existence.

This solution is not without its problems, because presenting an entire species as fascists takes away the agency of the individual to be evil. It is essentially reducing the evils of fascism to "orcish nature" rather than the actual complex system of hatred, propaganda, and evil that it is. Nobody is born a fascist, they are molded into one by politicians and bigots.

A solution to this is to have orcs literally be human beings that are shaped by an evil ideology, one so corrupted and cruel that it physically twists their bodies into a crueler form. Half-orcs are those that were raised in the ideology but escaped soon enough to not be corrupted wholly, though the physical effects are still evident. Humans become orcs over time, and orcish babies start out as humans. This also fixes the "what to do with baby orcs" problem, since inherently it means that orcs are not genetically chaotic evil, so one has a moral imperative to save the orc babies and take them to an orphanage.

Of course, this physical appearance needs to be completely divorced from the racist depictions that already exist. This also applies to all the other solutions I have. Don't have your orcs have dark brown/black skin, thick lips, dreadlocks and wear "primitive" clothing. These fascist orcs I described might wear jackboots and armor emblazoned with the symbols of their cruel ideology, their skin color isn't really important, its whatever it was before they were turned, perhaps more rough and thicker though. They still have fangs and pig snouts, the better for sniffing out victims and ripping them apart.

Don't make your orcs look like this, especially the one in the middle. From the 4th edition D&D Monster Vault.

However, this solution does have the problem of potentially making those who were raised in bigoted environments feel like monsters, and that there is nothing they can do about it. You could have it that as a half-orc does good deeds and unlearns their ideology they become more and more human, both physically and mentally.

Solution 2: Orcs as Completely Non-Human

This is less of a replacement of orcish behavior and attitudes and more of a replacement of orcs entirely. Instead of having humanoids with piggish features and a militaristic attitude, there instead are literal bipedal boars that live in colonies similar to ants, and function on instinct rather than intellect. These man-pigs don't fight because they're evil, they aren't sentient, they fight for the protection of the Sow-Queen and to expand their colony.

The swine from Darkest Dungeon

Or maybe there is a sorcerer, putting demons into the bodies of innocents and forcing them to fight his battles, the demonic presence within them changing their body into one more suited for combat. These aren't war-like humanoids, they are victims of demonic possession, modified for war and designed to spread conflict. They have jagged fangs and claws and beady red eyes that reflect back fear and horror at their own actions, even as their bestial throats bellow forth war cries. Maybe the sorcerer is long dead, but his army still lives, wandering the world and inhabiting dungeons.
Not quite what I'm describing but the deadites from the Evil Dead franchise are close.

But What If I Want My Players To Negotiate With Orcs?

If you want your players to be able to negotiate and make peace with orcs, then why not just replace them with humans or some other, new species of your own creation? This article is about how to preserve the role of the 1 hit die cannon fodder that can be slain without guilt, for more complex characters like that, something else is required. Replace them with a band of cave dwelling bandits or descendants of humans that evolved to live underground and have been fighting out of necessity and fear. These both would make for interesting role playing opportunities.

But we can have a fun role playing experience without falling back on old stereotypes and bigotry in order to have "bad guys". We don't need to be old school in our rulesets AND our ideology. Yes, D&D is just a game, but games are art, and works of art reflect the beliefs (both consciously and unconsciously) of those who create them.

I understand the need for violence in a lot of old school games, I really do, its a core part of the pulp fantasy nature of the game. I'm not complaining about that. But we don't need the monsters that our characters fight be racist caricatures.


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  2. I've found orcs pretty dull for a long time, and usually use goblins or kobolds, whom I find more fun to rp, when I need cannon fodder. If I'm running an adventure with orcs in it, I usually change them to boar-folk on the fly.

    But, when I do think about adding orcs into a world, brain turns to Orc Stain, by James Stockoe. It depicts a callous, alien culture that is distinctly brutal and non-human, but also weirdly appealing. Recommended.

  3. Gotta say a race of embodied demons is an appealing way out of this problem. It's probably going to carry its own implications (like whether it means the demons can be exorcized out of the bodies they inhabit and what happens then), but at least an innocent orc ain't one of them.

  4. D&D's orcs are racist caricatures? Not in my campaign. Instead, orcs are vicious humanoids with a penchant for rape, pillage, enslavement, and murder and little else. Villagers thank adventurers who root orcs out and hunt and destroy the fiends.

    1. And then there are orcs as minions. This arrangement always brings woe and horror to more civilized spaces and peoples. And we haven't even confronted the villainous bosses...

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  5. Interestingly, the cover of MERP's Cardolan features a great troll by Angus McBride, wearing a helm that could of been taken from Germany in WWII.

    1. It's perhaps the finest troll ever rendered. Naturally, it came with plenty of blood thirsty orcs.

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