Chad Perrin: SOB

25 June 2008

Real Orks

Filed under: RPG — apotheon @ 03:13

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.


All you gamers out there are surely familiar with that “monstrous humanoid” race known as “orcs”. You know what an orc is — right?

Are you sure about that?

The Common Perception

Amongst players of RPGs, the orc race is generally assumed to have certain characteristics, regardless of gameworld:

  1. Large: Orcs are taller, broader of shoulder, thicker boned, more solidly muscled, and much heavier than humans.

  2. Strong: Orcs are more physically powerful than humans. In fact, simply being a half-orc hybrid makes for a +2 Strength bonus in most, if not all, incarnations.

  3. Green: While there are cases where you’ll see gray-skinned orcs, that is at most usually just a variation from the norm — which is the green-skinned orc. I don’t recall ever seeing a published D&D gameworld where orcs didn’t typically have green skin.

  4. Piggish: The appearance of orcs in D&D gameworlds (as well as in worlds inspired by D&D) is pretty uniform in terms of facial features as well as appearance. They have a pair of tusk-like lower teeth that extend over the tops of their upper lips, squashed pig-like snouts, wide mouths, tiny little piggish eyes, and often weirdly ape-like or neanderthal-like head shapes.

  5. Stupid: Orcs are stupid. They’re often cartoonishly stupid. Even half-breeds, like the half-orc PC race, has a -2 Intelligence modifier, contributing to a stereotype of a rock-stupid thuggish brute with no sense of culture. This, too, one might describe as a “piggish” approach to defining an orc; they’re all pigs, metaphorically speaking.

  6. Disunity: Orcs are violent, savage creatures who apparently cannot organize themeslves worth a tinker’s damn. They are habitually chaotic, incapable of discipline or much forward thinking (playing into the “stupid” descriptor of course), and would rather kill each other than waste any time in careful plotting for more successful raids against their human neighbors.

  7. Unsuccessful: Orcs simply cannot expand their territory. When they raid a settlement, they take things, burn things, break things, and leave. Then, they sit around like imbeciles until a group of adventurers or a troop of disciplined soldiers shows up and wipes them out. The only reason they’re such a consistent plague is that they breed like rabbits.

There’s more, but it gets a little less consistent across implementations in differing game worlds. I think that pretty much hits the high points of what everyone expects of orcs in D&D.

The Origin

The race of orcs actually appeared in fantasy literature first in the writings of JRR Tolkien. In his writings, orcs were in fact a corrupted offshoot of the noble elven races, created by Morgoth’s will, which twisted them to serve his evil purposes. They are a militant race, among the fiercest and most effective soliders in all of Middle Earth. Only the Uruk-Hai seemed to outdo them in this regard — and the Uruk-Hai were effectively half-orcs, created by cross-breeding typical orcs with humans.

Even the name “orc” is not necessarily so familiar. Tolkien’s earliest elvish dictionaries spelled the word “Ork”, with a K instead of a C. While some of his writings use the “orc” spelling, he expressed in writing his intent for the word to be spelled with a K, though in several cases ended up overruled in the posthumous publication of his books (such as The Silmarillion).

Let’s revisit those seven familiar orcish descriptors above:

  1. Large: Ork size varies widely across Middle Earth, from the smaller cave-dwelling “goblins” of the Misty Mountains to the imposing beasts known as the Uruk-Hai. In fact, the largest orks (those Uruk-Hai) are essentially half-orks.

  2. Strong: The strength of an ork varied as widely as its size — the smaller varieties tending to be weaker than humans, the larger stronger.

  3. Green: Orks were never green-skinned in Tolkien’s writings, where they tend more toward shades of gray, sometimes tending toward black.

  4. Piggish: There’s nothing piggish about orkish appearance in Tolkein’s conception of the race — in its original conception.

  5. Stupid: Intrinsic intelligence might vary between specific varieties of ork, but Tolkien never directly addressed this, to my knowledge. While they tend to focus on a combination of baser desires and military discipline, to varying degrees depending on the specific orkish subrace, these characteristics are in no way directly related to stupidity. The assumption I would draw from this lack of specific treatment of the matter of their intelligence is that they tend to be as intelligent as humans, on average — though how they employ that intelligence likely differs significantly.

  6. Disunity: Far from being inherently fractious, orks are in many cases accustomed and even well-suited to military discipline. Great orkish commanders have led well-organized armies of their racial brethren, even in mixed units of subraces. Only in cases where different varieties of orks were loyal — yes, loyal — to diverging interests of separate masters (such as the orks and Uruk-Hai in The Two Towers who had captured Merry and Pippin), or when low-ranking soldiers are cooped up in very limited spaces for generations with only the most tedious of purposes without any notable supervision, do they tend to fall into fighting amongst themselves. Having been in the Army, I can tell you that isolating a group of low-ranking soldiers in restrictive circumstances for long periods of time can drive any race to infighting. Compare that to the infighting that occurred amongst the humans, elves, and dwarves of Tolkien’s works some time.

  7. Unsuccessful: Those orkish commanders to which I referred in point 6 have often led their armies to stunning victories against overwhelming odds. Consider that orks served as the majority forces of both Sauron and Saruman, and that both were militarily very successful — in Saruman’s case, at least until Saruman’s own leadership led his plans to failure. No, I don’t think orks are incompetent in the pursuit of their goals. If they have a failing in this regard, it is in aligning themselves with leaders who tend to pursue failure rather than success — and in the fact that, in fantasy swords and sorcery tales, the bad guys tend to lose, regardless of race.

Orkish Virtues

So . . . where did all those orkish virtues go, anyway?

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the term “goblin” was often used to refer to the smaller varieties of ork, such as those in the Misty Mountains, though “ork” is also a perfectly suitable term for them. More typical orks, larger than these goblins and smaller than the battle-bred Uruk-Hai, were sometimes called “hobgoblins” — though later, upon realizing that in mythic folklore “hobgoblin” was normally a term applied to smaller, more capricious goblins, Tolkien invented the term “Uruk-Hai” to refer to his (newer) largest form of ork.

In D&D, meanwhile, someone decided to create three separate, substantially redundant races out of this mess — goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs. The characteristics of orks, in translation to D&D, then got split up amongst these three separate races. Because of the similarity of names, of course, goblins and hobgoblins were imagined to be related somehow, but orcs were spun off into their own separate race of creatures entirely, divested of any relation at all to their own initial characteristics that were claimed by the now separate goblins and hobgoblins.

Hobgoblins got the militant lifestyle and habits, and the fierce soldierly spirit, of Tolkien’s orks. Goblins got some of their appearance characteristics, often becoming an exaggerated “smaller breed” approach that takes the Misty Mountain goblin example to greater extremes of pettiness, malevolence, and petite stature. Orcs, meanwhile, seem to have barely maintained any relation at all to Tolkien’s orks, bearing some minor (and apparently accidental) similarities to Uruk-Hai in terms of size and strength, but have otherwise been mutated beyond recognition.

Rather than being descended from elves, D&D orcs now appear to be descended from boars or even farm hogs (depending on their depiction in a given gameworld), perhaps with a touch of the Hulk’s irradiated blood thrown in for fun (“Orc smash! Me am green!”). Even half-orcs serve primarily as enemy red-shirts, brainless comic relief, and mindless raging animals in barely bipedal form. The very thought of a female D&D orc is laughable at best, as is the notion of anything like orcish “culture”.

From a richly imagined race of creatures, with a dark and tragic origin and a present sense of powerful, pervasive menace in Middle Earth, orks have been reduced to a half-joking excuse for PCs to spill blood, stack up experience points, and fill their belt pouches to overflowing with coinage, all without having to think about any moral implications of their actions or deal with an enemy more dangerous than the simplistic threat it can exert by largely undirected pure brute force.

Personally, I find it difficult to maintain any kind of suspension of disbelief when a GM embarks on an evocative description of a flabby-lipped, tusk-toothed, ape-headed, green-skinned, rock-stupid, congenitally incompetent, muscular neanderthal incapable of thinking more than a few minutes ahead without risk of brain injury. Why doesn’t anyone else have this problem?

Does everyone just like having a race of green-skinned pig-apes around as comic relief?

Corporate Responsibility

Filed under: Liberty — apotheon @ 12:38

The corporation as a legal entity and an economic institution is a big chunk of what’s wrong with the world. There are a lot of statements that could be made in support of that, a lot of arguments to be offered, but right now I’m just going to focus on one in particular: the problem of corporate responsibility.

In a sole proprietorship, the owner of the company is the ultimate sole determinant of company policy. He or she can make any decision about how the business should deal with matters of internal policy, marketing, product and service development, and conscientious coexistence with the rest of the world. The sole proprietor is the final arbiter of matters of conscience, and he or she must live with the decisions he or she makes. Period.

When a corporation is created, it becomes a legal entity in its own right. The “owners” become “shareholders”, with stakes in the company’s success. An executive is appointed the task of making the sorts of decisions that a sole proprietor would likely have made, and the shareholders do not simply sit around making such decisions themselves. Their decision-making power is mostly related to purchasing and sale of stock, and appointment of a Chief Executive Officer.

The CEO’s job — his or her responsibility — is primarily to the success of the corporation as an investment of the shareholders’ resources. He is legally beholden to such success. He has an ethical mandate to serve that end, and anything that stands in the way of that end is secondary at best. Period.

Shareholders are thus insulated from responsibility for the consequences of the corporation’s policies, both personally and legally. They not only don’t have a hand in the day to day decisions that might keep a sole proprietor up at night worrying about issues of right and wrong, but they shouldn’t know — that’s much of the point of having a corporation in the first place. They also have no direct legal worries about responsibility for the corporation’s policies as defined and enacted by the CEO.

A common statement in online discussion in the last few years, in my experience, is that a CEO has a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders. One of the more common formulations of that is “The corporation has a responsibility to the shareholders.” This kind of statement is often immediately followed by a reminder that the law actually enforces this responsibility, and if a corporation’s officers act in a manner inconsistent with trying to provide the greatest return on investment legally possible (even to the point of pushing the envelope of legality), they can be held accountable.

This sort of thing is usually brought up in defense of corporate policies in pursuit of market domination, such as the ruthless manner in which Microsoft seeks to shut others out of markets, crush potential competition through dirty tricks, and double-deal with its own customers. Bring up the way Steve Ballmer makes specious threats about software patents violated by software that existed before Microsoft did, and some chucklehead will point out the man’s fiduciary responsibility to “protect the intellectual property of Microsoft in the interests of its shareholders”. Never mind the obviously underhanded scare tactics and strongarm bullying. When faced with a situation like that, your choices are:

  1. Abide by the responsibilities you accepted when taking the job of CEO, but act in an otherwise unethical manner, because that unethical behavior isn’t as legally actionable as failure in your fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders.

  2. Act in an otherwise ethical manner, but forsake your fiduciary responsibilities, which is not only unethical to some extent itself but also a great way to open yourself up to legal action.

  3. Take the high road, and resign, thus violating no ethical limits on your behavior at all.

Notice Ballmer is still CEO of Microsoft.

It’s corporate law that creates this problem — and “corporate responsibility”, for all its scapegoating value as an excuse, is the problem. It not only creates conflicts of interest and ethics, but also makes sure nobody really has to believe that he or she is to blame for any of the bad things that are done in a corporation’s name. As long as they do what they’re supposed to do as shareholders and/or officers of a corporation, they are doing “the right thing” by some measure; if the wrong thing ultimately gets done, it’s not their fault. Really.

Even worse, that’s true a lot of the time. It’s entirely possible that everybody involved does the right thing, within the limited framework of their own role to play, but that it will all add up to some very wrong things being done. It’s the sort of paradoxical case of both nobody and everybody being to blame that can only exist when elaborate mechanisms for separation of individuals from personal responsibility for their part in greater actions are put in place. In other words, it’s the sort of situation where everyone being diligent and ethical to the best of their ability can lead to evil ends only because of the existence of that fictional entity, the “corporation”.

Corporate responsibility applies to far more than just CEOs, of course. Every officer, every functionary, every low-level intern labors under the yoke of corporate responsibility, and contributes as cogs in the cold, juggernaut clockwork of the amoral corporation. All of this adds up to a tremendous, pervasive wrongness in the socioeconomic system within which we live — but is just one drop in the bucket of what’s wrong with corporate law, and of how corporate economies interfere with the workings of a free market, an ethical criminal justice system, a political system of checks and balances, and myriad other influences on our way of life.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License