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?


  1. I share the sentiment, but I find that this is also true for other creatures in the D&D world. Most of them are there to be killed and looted. A lot of people have argued with me that this is part of the staple of heroic fantasy, that you need the pure evil for the good players to smash, but it does sort of underscore all those arguments of “will my paladin lose his powers if he smites baby kobolds?”

    When I first created my campaign setting I use today, I reworked orcs to be an intelligent nomadic sort of people who were not at all war-like or savage until the humans showed up and attempted genocide against them. Their current incarnation is much like the D&D standard (though still intelligent, and I never thought of them as exclusively green), but it’s mostly a ploy I play on my players. Being the canonical savage mindless humanoid, orcs are a good way to break new players out of the habit of seeing creatures in terms of pure evil, and I like the reactions I get when my players learn that the orcs are the way they are because two centures of attempted extermination has utterly ruined thier culture.

    I do kind of like the way Warhammer40k has treated orks though. They’re so extreme that they’re sort of a satire of themselves.

    Comment by Mina — 25 June 2008 @ 10:45

  2. Bravo! The orcs have been sadly maligned. Personally, I get around this by using a lot of hobgoblins instead, which seem to be less stereotyped.

    A note on orcish intelligence in Lord of the Rings… I’m struggling to remember where and when, but I seem to recall orcs (or possibly goblins) feigning death and then springing up in an attempt to trap someone. I have a feeling it might be in the mines of moria, at the moment when the orc chieftan spears Frodo. So they aren’t stupid, I think.

    Comment by Shackleton1 — 26 June 2008 @ 04:15

  3. Mina:

    I share the sentiment, but I find that this is also true for other creatures in the D&D world.

    True. I just have a special place in my heart for orks, so I addressed them in particular — and, with competition only from kobolds and (chromatic) dragons, the D&D orc must be the single most iconic and common beastie for PCs to engage in battle just because they’re there. In many ways, the D&D orc is the major enemy of many, many campaigns.

    “will my paladin lose his powers if he smites baby kobolds?”

    As far as I’m concerned, anything with the capacity for abstract thought and something like a “normal” life cycle has potential for good — which means that a Paladin smiting baby kobolds is every bit as evil as a kobold warrior killing baby humans (and shortly to cease being a Paladin). Of course, in games where there’s never any question of good or evil on the part of races like kobolds, I don’t think the GM ever even thinks of the notion that kobolds might have babies. Maybe you’ll find an egg every now and then — but “eggs aren’t really babies”, I guess, so in such games that wouldn’t be the same as smiting babies.

    I like the reactions I get when my players learn that the orcs are the way they are because two centures of attempted extermination has utterly ruined thier culture.

    That sounds like an excellent way to handle things. I do like screwing with players’ heads now and then with ethical issues like that. “Look, the world isn’t all in shades of black and white!” Sometimes, what makes a character heroic is bucking the trend and being good even when cultural stereotypes would induce someone to act otherwise.

    I do kind of like the way Warhammer40k has treated orks though. They’re so extreme that they’re sort of a satire of themselves.

    Being a tactical wargame instead of a roleplaying game, I think such a satirical, cartoonish treatment as 40K’s is perfectly acceptable. If you’re playing an RPG whose entire purpose is, to some extent, satirical and humorous, the same thing applies. I love some of the over the top humor involved in the 40K treatment of Space Orks, myself (like how painting things red makes them go faster). I just can’t imagine how anyone would want to import that kind of treatment of ork culture into a roleplaying game with any pretensions of seriousness.


    Bravo! The orcs have been sadly maligned. Personally, I get around this by using a lot of hobgoblins instead, which seem to be less stereotyped.

    I tend to roll hobgoblins back into the orcish race, recreating orks in the Tolkien sense, and just make sure my players know it. How exactly I implement an orkish race varies from game world to game world for me, in fact. For instance, in one gameworld I developed an elder race split into two branches — the orks and the elves — when one half pursued magical advancement almost exclusively and the other a form of technological advancement almost exclusively. Both the magics involved in the elven branch and the radioactive materials used in the orkish branch have served to rapidly mutate the relevant branch of the race so much that the two are pretty much unrecognizable as related in the modern gameworld.

    I’ve also created gameworlds in which the difference between an ork and a hobgoblin is that the hobgoblin is a dumber, less fierce, and somewhat dominated subrace of orks.

    In another gameworld I created, orks once ruled the world via an ancient empire that ultimately crumbled, and they’ve descended into savagery since then.

    All three of those ideas have been mixed together at times, and I’ve come up with completely different incarnations of an orkish race in other cases.

    I seem to recall orcs (or possibly goblins) feigning death and then springing up in an attempt to trap someone. I have a feeling it might be in the mines of moria, at the moment when the orc chieftan spears Frodo. So they aren’t stupid, I think.

    It has been years since I’ve read those books, so . . . I don’t recall when that happened either. Thanks for bringing up the example, though.

    Comment by apotheon — 26 June 2008 @ 07:28

  4. I agree with your criticism. I had thought of doing orks as an Arctic/Sub-Arctic/Tundra/Taiga dwelling people. Tough and well-adapted to their environment, living in small family groups because their environment would discourage large settlements.

    I thought that half-orks would be nomadic steppe dwelling horse herders responsible for the negative image of orks because of their barbarian invasions of settled/cultivated lands.

    Comment by grotius — 29 July 2008 @ 09:06

  5. Note: In the following, my choice of spelling (orc or ork) in each case is deliberate.

    In a gameworld I share with another GM, the orcs once had an empire that covered a substantial expanse of the main world map, but since having their empire shattered have retreated into seclusion in a mountainous area. Half-orcs (a PC race) are now rare, but not unheard of, in some civilized areas, existing on the fringes of society. There’s a large desert wastes area where the only PC race that’s really “native” is some barbarian tribes of half-orcs, which have developed into something akin to their own distinct race, breeding amongst themselves. While they are tribal, and do produce most of the Barbarian class PCs and NPCs of the world, they aren’t just savages — they have rich cultures, and all that nonsense.

    In a gameworld that is all mine, both orks and half-orks are PC races. Orks make up one of two races that are indigenous to the wintry north, the other being an elven subrace — and the orks are the more numerous. Orks are, in fact, essentially Norsemen in those reaches. There are other orks in other areas, though they’re outside the area where I have PCs at the moment. There’s also a race called the oni that developed from ages-ago mixing of elven and orkish blood, which over the years has become a distinct race all its own. Their culture is martial, but quite sophisticated, in some ways akin to feudal Japanese culture at the height of the Edo period.

    Comment by apotheon — 29 July 2008 @ 11:26

  6. Came across here from an old link on the rpg subreddit and thought it was interesting. I’m not a tabletop player so feel free to disregard my words if they look ignorant of some context that’s necessary for this conversation, but I’m wondering if some of the Blizzard people had similar ideas about the direction of orcs/orks in D&D when they were building their Warcraft franchise. Specifically, in Warcraft III and World of Warcraft, they redacted their Warcraft II interpretation of orcs (where, even though they were portrayed as bloodthirsty and completely malevolent, they were organized and extremely dangerous to the “Alliance”) and redid their culture as a mix of tribal shamanism and bushido-like martial code. I’m wondering if it was backlash against the typical D&D orc, or just a mad dash to make the orc race more palatable as a PC race. Either way, having a more fleshed-out and nuanced orc culture is better than the dumb-and-strong-as-rocks stereotype.

    And now that I’ve written that, I’m wondering if the Klingon race is essentially “honorable and cultured orcs” done in space, but I admit that I might be reaching just a tad.

    Comment by CaliScrub — 30 July 2008 @ 02:57

  7. Welcome to SOB, CaliScrub.

    I’m wondering if the Klingon race is essentially “honorable and cultured orcs” done in space, but I admit that I might be reaching just a tad.

    There might be something to that — but probably not directly. There’s something kind of archetypal about the idea of an honor-bound people with a rich, violent culture that seems to make it very attractive in fictional contexts. It’s where we get the “noble savage” stereotype, I think, and helps to explain the mystique of feudal Japanese culture as well.

    Of course, there’s always the danger of taking that too far, too — but that’s not the most common problem with orks.

    Comment by apotheon — 30 July 2008 @ 04:03

  8. […] you may have guessed from such ramblings as Real Orks, I rather like orks — at least when they’re done right. Part of the reason I use OD green 550 […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » the best girlfriend evar — 31 July 2008 @ 03:42

  9. In the Lord of The Rings The Two Towers, and then again in The Return of the King (Both in the Books and Movies) Orcs, Uruk- Hai (And in the Books Goblins and Gundabad Orcs)ally themselves for a common good, then kill each other. In The Two Towers one, becuse of starvation, in the Return of the King, becuse of greed.

    In the Fourth Edidition Monster Manual It says: “Bloodthirsty marauders and cannibals, orcs venerate Gruumsh and thereby delight in slaughter and destruction. “Orcs worship Gruumsh, the one-eyed god of slaughter and are savage, bloodthirsty marauders. They plauge the civilized races of the world and also fight among themselves for scraps of food and treasure.

    Comment by Forest — 14 July 2009 @ 08:18

  10. Okay . . . and?

    edit: Should we then assume that the people of the Donner party were actually orks, too?

    Comment by apotheon — 14 July 2009 @ 06:04

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