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:
Large: Orcs are taller, broader of shoulder, thicker boned, more solidly muscled, and much heavier than humans.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
Strong: The strength of an ork varied as widely as its size — the smaller varieties tending to be weaker than humans, the larger stronger.
Green: Orks were never green-skinned in Tolkien’s writings, where they tend more toward shades of gray, sometimes tending toward black.
Piggish: There’s nothing piggish about orkish appearance in Tolkein’s conception of the race — in its original conception.
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.
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.
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.
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?