Orcs for Justice

For those who don’t know, Dungeons and Dragons is, crudely, the tabletop board-game version of games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, and I’ve played it for many years.  The enjoyment I derive from this game is so thorough, through the several editions that I’ve played, that I’ve written my own campaign setting.  Those who know what that phrase means know that this was no small undertaking, and the world’s current, approximately finished state is the culmination of a decade of effort and countless revisions.

A campaign setting is a detailed description of a fantasy world that serves as a setting in which a D&D story transpires, complete with continents, kingdoms, regions, and so on.  It sets up a variety of conflicts, persons of interest, and basic ideas about how the world works, on which other stories can be built, as well as possibilities specifically included and supported in some way.  Similarly, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Star Wars universe are shared settings whose attributes can be retained between stories that take place within them.  A setting can go a long way toward setting the tone of, and establishing background for, any stories that take place within it, or it can be largely irrelevant, depending on the story.

Part of what makes D&D settings work is that D&D has a huge body of established conventions, and campaign settings generally leave a lot of them unchallenged to reserve space for what makes that setting actually unique.  Dungeons and Dragons is a world based, at its core, on small groups of heroes being heroic in a fantastical version of Medieval Europe, with wizards, knights, castles, peasants, thieves, clerics, and so on.  The historical elements are embellished with mythicized significance, mixing history with magic.  Clerics, for example, retain a historically-true preference for blunt weapons, but wield divine magic to heal their allies and blast their foes.  The world is littered with ruins and roads are haunted with bandits and raiders, making travel between cities challenging.  The specifics of these conventions have shifted over the decades, but the accumulated body of what people “expect” from a D&D setting is still largely similar, for one important reason.  Every little thing that differs from implicit expectations is another chunk of a setting, published or homemade, temporary or enduring, that has to be described as such, which increases the cerebral load on people who want their characters to make sense in context and the annoyance load on Dungeon Masters (game hosts) who want the same.  Changes to these conventions are best reserved for world-defining differences from the “norm,” so that their significance makes them memorable, or as hints that one might be better served by a game system with different assumptions, such as Shadowrun or Legend of the Five Rings.

My setting, Tairon, makes a number of intentional departures from some of D&D’s assumptions.  It places aberrant foes closer to the center of the world’s problems, where most settings assume that evil gods or demons are the game’s ultimate villains.  Virtually every government or organization of consequence has a dark truth to how it is run, usually theocratic leanings or infiltration by evil forces.  The deities are unusually small in number and operate on distinctly unfriendly morals that just as easily bring them into conflict with good adventurers as evil ones, and perhaps even their own ostensible servants.  Humans are a geopolitically powerful but numerically and geographically rare species, and consist entirely of people of color.  Most of the world is instead home to large civilizations built by non-human races, including dwarves, halflings, elves, and several of my own invention.

What has been much more challenging is determining the role of, for lack of a better term, the “savage” races of Dungeons and Dragons.

Dungeons and Dragons features many humanoid races, such as orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, trolls, minotaurs, and so on, that are meant to be the player characters’ foes.  These are almost always presented as primitive, violent foils for the “civilized” peoples whose cities and farms the player characters are usually expected to defend, or at least care about.  More pointedly, they’re also presented as intelligent opponents who nevertheless don’t raise any particular ethical issues when they’re killed in large numbers.  The original myths on which these beings were based usually encourage this view.  Orcs, for example, are lightly based on demonic entities from English myth and refined over time with similar stories from pre-Roman Italy.  In Tolkien’s work, they are corrupted elves manufactured by cosmic evil, and do not reproduce on their own or have any kind of society other than service to their evil masters.  Tolkien’s orcs do not have redeeming qualities, or even the possibility of redemption.  Virtually every possible crime is among their bad habits, including cannibalism.  Their loathsomeness is further coded with signifiers for lower-class status (pay attention to the accents in the film versions), disease, and disability.  Similar creatures, such as goblins, bugbears, and hobgoblins, are likewise based on malicious or capricious faerie entities known for playing pranks or kidnapping children, and this separation from the morals of ordinary mortals continues to be assumed even as their modern incarnations differ strongly from that origin.

European-based fantasy, of course, has been around long enough that these creatures have been made sympathetic and back again dozens of times.  This shift has coincided with a gradual tendency to make these beings more human, particularly in their biology, and to explicitly carve out the possibility that individual members, or entire societies, of “savage” races can exist peaceably alongside “civilized” races and even spawn heroic adventurers.  Modern orcs are human enough to occasionally mate with humans and spawn “half-orcs,” and that other famous heroic fantasy property, World of Warcraft, presents orcs as an ordering rather than destructive force, acting as the center of a burgeoning and surprisingly peaceful political alliance between several “monstrous” races.  Greek minotaurs are presented as more-or-less non-sentient beings manufactured to-order by vengeful deities, but modern minotaurs are everything from sailors and pirates to meditative celebrants trying to keep the “inner beast” in check to animists borrowing a mishmash of indigenous American traditions.

A bearded, green-skinned orc warrior wearing his hair in a topknot and clothed in gold and gray armor.  He is carrying a sword and a shield.
An orc warrior, of the heroic persuasion.

The end result is that it’s common, easy, and no longer especially subversive to reimagine any of these traditional fantasy antagonists as “proud warrior” races that conflict with their “civilized” counterparts out of pride, desire to retain territory, the sheer joy of battle, resource shortages, to prove a point, or for any of various reasons that don’t mark them as supernatural engines of destruction with whom negotiation is impossible.  Sometimes, the racial redemption narrative is placed front and center, with a particular leader or group seeking to unite their people into a more peaceable whole rather than leave them as squabbling raiders.  Increasingly, it’s common for games that include multiple “civilized” races to offer the option to make one’s character an orc, goblin, minotaur, troll, or other traditional fantasy villain and for settings to include the “savage” races not just as incidental threats, but as geopolitical forces with territories and even governments.

Such reimaginings seek to humanize the fantasy villains, to reduce the incentive for players and their characters to thoughtlessly mow them down without engaging with their motives and to create the possibility of more complex storytelling, which are welcome changes from the genre’s hack-and-slash potential.  Clever use of this kind of thinking is part of why my beloved Beast Wars is such an engaging show.  Including more space for compassion and reconciliation should be entirely good news, but this time it happened in a way that has some unfortunate implications.

Proud warrior race” is not a neutral concept.  It is close kin to the “noble savage” mythologizing aimed at indigenous Americans, which designates a people as worthy despite their failure to rise to European standards of civilized life.  It has a way of turning up to reduce the terror factor of invading armies of warlike people of color that have aimed themselves squarely at white civilization, from the Dothraki to the Klingons to the Predators.  It frequently comes with cultural characterizations that link the fictional group with one or more groups of real-world people of color stereotyped for violence.  “Proud warrior races” often serve as vehicles for centering a story on European fears of being conquered by dark-skinned, racialized outsiders, and encourage the formation of “white savior” narratives to bring them into the civilized fold.  “Proud warrior” orcs start to look a lot like the Haradrim and Easterlings, rendered more horrid by the pretense of humanity assigned to their crude, racist images.

My setting currently has three orc cultures, geographically distinct and lightly differentiated from one another based on their tribal leadership structures.  Goblins and their kin likewise have regional groups, and one of them is a regional power whose neighbors have to consider it in their decisions.  Minotaurs control a large tropical forest and are mostly benign on their own but being manipulated by a powerful entity.  Other than minotaurs, most of the “savage races” of D&D are left where the game’s assumptions place them, at the periphery of human and demi-human civilization, to be invoked as threats as needed and set aside when they’re no longer challenging enough or of appropriate adventuring scale.  I’ve been increasingly wondering whether this lackadaisical approach is the one that best serves my world.  Returning the orcs, goblins, and other monstrous humanoids of my world to their magical roots, as supernaturally evil creatures with distinctly inhuman biology that do harm for harm’s sake, would these days be the more surprising approach, which is useful in a setting where few things are as they seem.  It would potentially make them into villains that defy easily comprehensible motives but seem like they should have comprehensible motives, which is the ideal kind of unsettling for this world.

The problem with this approach is that, with the “savage races = racist depictions of people of color” trope now firmly established, making these beings less sympathetic means declaring the people of color they represent to be less than human.  Taking them from a group living in far worse conditions than the gleaming civilizations they raid for sustenance to a supernatural plague on the land is, in this scenario, not a step forward.

I want this world to deal with and evoke deep, primal fears that aren’t refracted through a lens of white people’s fear about the unfamiliar folks over the next hill, and that is going to take more careful world-building, and perhaps some attention to the mythic roots of some of these creatures.

Perhaps I’ll excerpt some of the results as a Patreon award.

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Orcs for Justice
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17 thoughts on “Orcs for Justice

  1. 1

    Yeah the “savage races = racist depictions of people of color” trope kept me away from fantasy RPGs for a while. That and how there seems to be no progress in many fantasy worlds. To me it seemed like you could go 1000 years forwards or back in time and the only things that would change would be castles changing to ruins (or vice versa). There would be no technological, social, etc changes to the world. Also I realized how “adventurers” were often just murderous hobos, wandering from place to place killing whatever got in their way acting like judge/jury/executioner. Bandits? Kill ’em and take their stuff. Orcs? Kill ’em and take their stuff. Dragon? Try and kill them and try to haul out all their stuff. Fantasy just didn’t seem too deep.

    And let’s not forget the lack of indoor plumbing.

  2. 3

    I wrote a wee bit about murdery PCs in part three of my article here (the comments got weird because I switched from nesting partway through).

    The last party I GM’d for were in Pathfinder. The PCs were a goblinish rogue and a priest of the revenge+sex workers goddess. Social justice themes came up from time to time. Gobliny guy distrusted pink elves and humans for good reasons, but had to get by in their world. Priest had to regulate slut shamers & ponder the ramifications of revengey justice in different situations.

    Still, the setting is fundamentally flawed for this stuff. Gotta go off-books sometimes to do right.

    And Savannah was right. Historically vampires and werewolves have had association with evil foreigners. Vampires would be rich foreigners, werewolves poor ones such as itinerant peoples. At least, that’s what my dude told me after his research project on the subject. I have no sources.

  3. 4

    Just stopping by to say, as a gamer myself and someone very interested in how the pop culture and gaming media I enjoy perpetuate and reflect cultural stereotypes and tropes, that I LOVED this piece and look forward to more explorations of this issue.

  4. 5

    If you aren’t familiar with it, the webcomic Goblins (http://www.goblinscomic.org/) goes into a lot of depth about the prejudices of PCs who go around slaughtering all the nonhuman races “because they’re evil,” with no thought whatsoever about what that means.

    I have a friend who’s been talking about a Middle Earth campaign that would start right at the moment that the ring is cast into Mount Doom. All sorts of things that had formerly been barely held together would start coming apart, he says. I’ve been thinking a lot about how one would play an Easterling, stuck in Middle Earth after the armies go home. It’s pretty astounding how little we know about the Easterling and Southron cultures in LotR. We don’t even know why they’re helping Sauron. Maybe they have perfectly valid reasons.

  5. 6

    Never been too appealed by D&D and its strict black and white morality.

    There may be other approaches to evoke “deep, primal fears”.
    You could go the Zerg/Borg way and make the foes mindless, but controlled by very intelligent (and murderous) “hive minds”.
    These would both provide a larger, organized and devious foe, while at the same time clearing all moral dilemmas and avoiding comparisons with the real world.

    On the other side of the spectrum, you could have highly organized, highly civilized humans as the main foes: give the players every possible reason to empathize with them, then little by little expose how the very things that the player share with them drive them to utter evil.
    Are you familiar with Exalted? The setting is awesome, with several factions each claiming the morel high ground with good reason, and each with their hands soaked in the blood of the innocents.

  6. 7

    I have played D&D since the 1970s…. which means I am pretty old… haha. I actually played with Gary Gaygax once… which was pretty cool (even though my character got killed).

    My best campaigns had a smattering of ambiguous moral dilemmas as well as some clearly non-ambiguous ones. Most players are happy to interact with “barbarians” that are “uncivilized”. This kind of interaction gives the game a lot of interest and allows them to interact in a kind of joking adversarial way (the Legolas and Gimli model). Orc characters…. why not?

    I do also recommend a foe that is clearly evil. This provides the opportunity for characters to be truly heroic. In real life, we are often trapped by ethical subtlety… never feeling like we are heroes. D&D provides an opportunity to pick something that is truly good, and sacrificing everything to accomplish that good. It is fun to feel heroic once-in-a-while, even if it is just on paper.

    A solution I have used is to make the evil force non-human. The baddies can be powerful incantations, animated objects, un-dead spirits, etc. There is no ethical ambiguity in smashing a bunch of reanimated skeletons…. it’s just good clean fun!

  7. 8

    In D&D, racist notions are true! Gnomes are smart (+2 int), elves are agile (+2 dex), dwarves can drink you under the table, etc. It almost makes it nonsensical for a character in D&D not to be racist.

    My D&D group is also running a homebrew setting, and it’s so much more fun than your standard Faerun! It’s a sort of Enlightenment-era setting, where national alliances are shifting and uncertain as a world war is breaking between the two largest nations. Nations are organized not around a founding race, but around a style of magic: there’s a queendom of the undead run by necromancers, the caste-based Kingdom of Oaths where everyone is magically bound by a geas to perform their job, the Republic that uses arcane magics to enslave elementals to power airships and whose clerics channel the various powers of a monotheistic deity to create divine technological wonders, and the Empire, created from several druidic circles whose leaders were granted noble titles by a powerful monarch.

    Our DM has so far avoided the issue of the “savage races” by simply not including them – although half-orcs are allowed as characters. Presumably, most “savage races” have been poached to extinction by overzealous adventurers over the course of the setting’s history.

    Good luck with your setting, and I hope you find a creative and satisfying way to present the orcish/goblinoid races! I think there’s a lot of potential that avoids the typical racist tropes, and I hope you can find one that works for you. Happy gaming!

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