Ecce Orcus! An Argument for Humanizing the Orc

Orcs should be one of the core races of fantasy; both fantasy gaming and fantasy fiction. Humans, elves and dwarves are all well and good—I just want to see orcs added to that list.

I’m not talking about half-orcs, though I like half-orcs too. I am talking orcs; I want them pulled out of the Monster Manual and put into the Player’s Handbook. Half-orcs are are like half-elves; neat, but they don’t diminish the need for the original non-human race. I want to mainstream orcs. They have the pedigree! Tolkien set out to fabricate a mythology and he succeeded; we now see the bits and pieces that he synthesized from a wide range of sources as the “canon” of fantasy. Going by that rubric, orcs belong shoulder to shoulder with elves and dwarves; their roots go just as deep, and I think they bring something important to the genre.

In “A Modest Proposal for More Diversity,” I called for a greater range of real world ethnicities to be portrayed in fantasy fiction. The demonization of the orc is the flip side of that. Fantasy has a long and embarrassing history of imperialism built into it. The trope of a bunch of blonde haired white people—elves, humans, dwarves—against a host of dark skinned “barbarians” is not accidental. It doesn’t come out of thin air. It is a response to colonial pressures, to Europeans in Africa and Asia and to Europeans in conflict with Native Americans. The fact is that “hack and slash” or “dungeon crawl” games involve “heroes”—usually light skinned ones—going to where other races live, killing them and taking their stuff. Sometimes this is a matter of dragon-slaying or smashing skeletons, but by and large the threat is one of what Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons call “monstrous humanoids.” They are just… people. “Demihuman,” huh? Less than human? Seriously; so much of fantasy gaming involves breaking into people’s homes, murdering them, and then looting their corpses. Does having green skin and tusks make it okay to pursue a pogrom against them?

There aren’t racial alignments. Demons and devils might have innate alignments (—though if an angel can fall and become evil, can a devil repent and become good?—) but alignments should be cultural. Drow can be evil because “drow” is a society, a Lolth-centric theocracy founded on slavery and betrayal. Orcs can be evil; they can be caught up in the armies of a dark lord or part of a group of bandits, but then, so can humans. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have evil orcs, but rather that you should have good orcs, as well. No “race” should be inherently villainous. Making orcs into monsters reflects historical attempts to dehumanize people by painting them as animals.

Don’t just make them noble savages; remember, we’re trying to get away from the post-colonial legacy. Tribal orcs aren’t innately a bad thing, but they can be problematic; clumsily co-opting marginalized civilizations is a bad thing. Let’s not put on our rose-tinted glasses here, let’s not go for insulting caricatures. Treat orcs as people, not as a fearful or fearsome caricature. We’ve seen the problems that creating a simplified “primitive” race of “mystics” can bring—look at Avatar’s “Great White Hope” problem— and that is something to be wary of. I’m not saying you can’t have animist orcs, just to keep our eyes open going into it.

I’m inclined to say that orcs shouldn’t have intelligence penalties, while I’m at it. I again have to invoke the real specter of historical racism. There have been plenty of pseudo-scientists spouting physiognomy in the guise of anthropology. Heck the word “race” is a perfect example of that legacy. People were actually taught that people of different backgrounds were categorically different, that some types of people are smarter and therefore superior to other kinds of people. That legacy shored up arguments in favor of slavery, apartheid and eugenics for, well, centuries. Making orcs innately stupid seems too much like an extension of that line of thinking.

You know that moment when you are playing a half-orc (or maybe a tiefling) and someone in the game world just reacts to your character with a host of assumptions, all of them bad? Your noble half-orc paladin rides into town on his celestial dire boar charger…only to be met by an armed city guard. Or your half-orc druid descends from the forest to purchase supplies only to be told that no orcs are allowed in the city limits. Maybe your lawful neutral half-orc fighter is sick and tired of being treated like he’s some numbskull berserker, excluded from the general’s discussion of strategy. Either way, there is just a moment where your brain clicks. “That isn’t…fair.” No, it isn’t. It is pretty terrible when people make negative assumptions about you based on your character race. “Oh, I’m not insulting you, I just always heard orcs were great barbarians; if anything it is a compliment!”

I don’t want to over-state the dawning awareness of inequality, but I do think that the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is one of the things that makes the hobby great. Obviously it is hardly a patch on real discrimination, but it can rattle your assumptions in a good way. It is a tool by which you can examine privilege. By pretending to be someone else, you get a chance to…well, see what it is like to be someone different from you. In a world where “straight white male” is the presumed default of most fiction, a game where the “human male” assumption rubs your character the wrong way can be a good tool for understanding how the bias of an supposed uniform audience or protagonist is a bad thing. Playing a half-orc lets you see how assigning someone “outsider” status on the basis of irrational prejudice is…well, a bad thing. Not that it should need to be said, but fiction can shine a light on these things, transforming it from an abstract idea into something personally meaningful.

Take a page from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the original series, Klingons weren’t entirely dehumanized—notable episodes like “The Trouble With Tribbles” proved that they were still people—but more often they were the all-purpose Cold War faceless foe. When The Next Generation came out, though, they put a Klingon on the crew, providing a much bigger window to explore the notions of othering and the outsider. We can do it with aliens…why not do it with fantasy races?

I don’t think this is revolutionary. Shadowrun has orcs. Well, “orks.” Warhammer—especially the science-fiction version, Warhammer 40,000—has presented orcs as a playable race for decades. From the “Waaagh!” to riding boars to the squigs and nobs, you can see a pretty solid culture take shape. Warcraft of course is another big name in making orcs a playable race; the heroic orcs of The Horde are a great argument for why the orc should be considered part of the “standard fantasy toolkit.” Stan Nicholls has books and comics with orcs as three dimensional characters. Even Forgotten Realms has Obould Many-Arrows, the orc chieftan with a dream of civilization. Eberron has druidic orcs, Spelljammer has the scro—sophisticated militaristic orcs in space—so the seeds have already been planted. Embracing that evolution is only good for the genre.

Orc illustrations are copyright Wizards of the Coast and Paizo.


Mordicai Knode really likes orcs, but in his own campaign that niche is filled by Neanderthals. That is just the way it is. You can talk to him about hominids and fantasy races in the comments or on Twitter, or follow him on Tumblr.

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