... now with 35% more arrogance!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

About Orcs

James Maliszewski has posted about orcs on GROGNARDIA. Actually, what he wants is examples of how GMs have personalized their interpretations of monsters in the game, which I suppose I might do, but I already had something I wanted to say about orcs: there are three interpretations of the orcish race floating around out there, and the oldest is one of the least popular... but maybe it shouldn't be.

The main interpretation of orcs -- the one everyone is familiar with -- is that orcs are brutish, violent destroyers. It's a very true-to-Tolkien interpretation, even if the particulars can drift a bit from RPG to RPG. A lesser competing interpretation is the orc as the noble savage; this one is central to John Wick's Orkworld, but you also see it to some extent in D&D setting materials that allow half-orcs. It parallels the changes in Star Trek's portrayal of Klingons, who go from pure dastardly villainy, through a very brutish-looking phase, to more of a very violent but honorable phase.

But there are interesting bits in the LBBs that suggest a third interpretation that's somewhere between these two: orcs as brutish, dangerous savages that repulse civilized peoples, but are not necessarily completely antithetical to the civilized lands. In Monsters & Treasure, orcs are described as traveling through the wilderness in wagon trains or caravans, or occasionally building villages with a palisade and catapults. That's almost human, and certainly not something goblins, hobgoblins or kobolds seem to do (at least, not according to the LBBs.) And in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, orcs are listed as an available mercenary type -- and they aren't as rare as elven mercenaries, implying that they're hired often enough that they can be found in civilized areas in reasonable numbers.

This is painting an admittedly sketchy picture of orcs as a disgusting, untrustworthy, but grudgingly accepted part of human society, unlike elves and dwarves who are visiting outsiders at this point in D&D's history. People certainly don't want them around; orcs practice ritual cannibalism and sculpt their own feces into horrific statues.* But they're too useful to human warlords and barons looking for cheap troops. I think the tension between a populace who finds orcs disquieting and feudal lords who insist on using orcish armies is an underutilized interpretation.

* I made a footnote and forgot to actually add it at the bottom of the post... the bit about sculpting feces is, properly speaking, really a description of the "narcs" from Bored of the Rings. But more and more, that's the way I imagine orcs: a combination of "narcs" with maybe some of that horrible made-for-TV Return of the King cartoon. "Where there's a whip, there's a way!"

1 comment:

  1. Maybe orcs are the fantasy equivalent of mines (the explosive device you bury in the ground, not the hole where you get your diamonds). In the modern real world, many people want to eliminate the use of mines because they always end up being left behind and killing or maiming civilians. But other forces (like the US military) insist that mines are a vital part of our military defense... because they are so cost effective. Perhaps orcs are the same --- dangerous (even to the people who hire them sometimes), but cheap... so the less picky warlords and evil barons on a budget (perhaps the Mommar Ghadaffi and Kim Sung Ils of the Fantasy world) will use them rather than the less repulsive and more predictable humans, dwarves, elves, etc.