Monday, June 21, 2010

How about them Orcs?

Over at Grimmhaus, Josh has posted his ideas about the evolution of the RPG Orc, and how he doesn't like the way they went from evil bastards to misunderstood noble savages.

I completely agree. I don't want to drag in all sorts of post-modern, political correctness into my games. I assume anyone I game with is reasonably sane enough to realize that monsters in the game are just that--monsters. Not some way to explore the "Other" or something. Go take a Literature class at your local college for that.

One thing that has always colored my impressions of Orcs were both a) the fact that in Mentzer, my first encounter with the monster as I hadn't read Tolkien yet, they are one of the few monsters listed with family present in lairs and b) the fact that they, along with Goblins, appear on the Expert set Mercenary lists.

Because of this, I see Orcs as being social creatures, not just destructive evil villains. They have families at home, and they can be bargained with at least enough to serve as troops for Chaotic rulers. Gnolls, Lizard Men and others will just happily gut you and eat you if they can, but Orcs will often be open to offers from powerful or at least wealthy parties.

This impression was reinforced by the D&D cartoon, where there were a few episodes in which Venger's stronghold of the week was guarded by Orcs (good old green, pig-faced Orcs to boot).

The 3E Orc-as-super-strong-savage never felt right to me. I think another thing that influenced this was the 1E Half-Orc, who excelled as an Assassin. That made me think that Orcs should be a bit more wiley/sneaky, the way Goblins are often portrayed (especially in 3E).

So for me, Orcs are: evil, raiding tribal humanoids, who can be bargained with and who do have some things they are willing to fight for. They are not mindless engines of destruction, nor are they combat power-houses, and they are perfectly willing to resort to subterfuge or tactical maneuver to deal with foes.


  1. A good post and one that raises some very interesting questions about the use of orcs. Even Gygax sounds a bit confused about the orc - in the Monster Manual, it is listed as Lawful Evil (organised, hierarchical and structured) yet on p104 of the DMG, orcs are described as chaotic.

    Unlike yourself, I encountered Tolkien orcs first and therefore always had a gut reaction against the description of them as pig-faced.

    I think we all go through a phase, after using monsters as just another way to kill the party, of thinking "How can I make these guys more interesting?". The question is "Interesting to whom?" The party don't give two hoots for the DM's complex invention of orc languages, cultures or society, the vast majority of which will never be encountered and if it is, will not be appreciated. The only way in which the party will take an interest in upgunned orcs is in the ways in which they interact with characters, i.e. combat.

  2. Orcs ain't got no reason to live.