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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Orcs and the End of Symbols...

There's been a lot of chatter about gaming orcs lately.  Orcs are a racist stereotype, and inherently evil orcs give cover to the idea that some races (and by extension, some cultures) are better than others.  I agree racist thinking is wrong, just as much as I admit that more nuanced orcs are a legitimate approach.  But I emphatically reject the notion that evil orcs are necessarily racist, especially when we consider the symbolic nature of fantasy.

Fantasy is allegory.  Fantasy is symbolism.  It takes abstract, ephemeral concepts and embodies them for closer examination.  Think of it as psychotherapy.  Dragons, with their hoarded gold, represent human avarice whereas orcs symbolize pure hatred for others, something everyone fears regardless of their so-called race.  These are universal concepts that speak to everyone, because the need for symbols is itself universal...

Not so much anymore.  Fantasy can't be fantasy.  It has to be a cold, naturalistic thought experiment.  Orcs can't possibly represent the concept of hatred.  Symbols have no place in the sterile imaginings of tomorrow.  A thing in a fantasy rulebook must necessarily have its counterpart in the real world.  Not a concept, but a literal, material thing.  Orcs are people of color, and all this talk of universal symbolism is just a cloak for the slavery apologists.

But life is more than just things.  Life is a collection of abstract, subjective experiences we must all grapple with.  Otherwise, fantasy has its flesh-and-blood realism, but loses its metaphorical soul in a Faustian bargain.  Now I'll say this just because I know it's gonna come up.  Some would blame this all on secular culture, a popular boogeyman for a certain moral faction.  I'm a secular humanist; and while I see no evidence for any supernatural claim, I see abundant evidence for humanity, physical brains, and inner lives...

And when we abandon symbolism, we abandon our humanity, which is the only thing that makes fantasy resonate in the first place.  Otherwise, fantasy is just science fiction.

Now to be charitable, if the goal is to make D&D a realistic (read: naturalistic) universe, nuanced races make sense.  The gods are aliens, magic just another natural energy to be  harnessed.  It's our world wearing new clothes.  I've long thought that modern D&D has become an Iron-Age Star Trek, complete with elven shopkeepers and spells on every street corner.  There's nothing wrong with this; it can be fun, but it's not the only way.

That said, orcs aren't people of color.  They're the cop with his knee on an unarmed black man's throat.  They're the Nazis who took my Jewish family to the camps.  Orcs are the hatred we all must grapple with, and I find it sad that those who would challenge racism are unwittingly erasing the very symbols used to describe it.  Orcs are pure, unapologetic evil, which comes in many forms.  The Klan, the Nazis, the sex traffickers.  You name it.  And we desperately need such symbols in these times lest we become the very orcs we fear...  


  1. Thank you for putting this into words. It's all well and good to come up with differing interpretations of classic monsters, but to zealously insist on standards of political correctness for creatures that don't even exist is really jumping the shark. Let orcs represent hate and corruption, kobolds embody malicious mischief, dwarves stand for stubbornness and the desire to create things of enduring beauty and usefulness, and elves be inscrutable, otherworldly, and ageless.

  2. "...Fantasy can't be fantasy. It has to be a cold, naturalistic thought experiment. Orcs can't possibly represent the concept of hatred. Symbols have no place in the sterile imaginings of tomorrow..."

    That is a bit of projection in this Great Ork Debate. It is when someone presents orks with some imagination that a lot of fantasists get uncomfortable.
    Still a good argument in this best of side quests for our heads in the hobby.

  3. Sure, it depends on how you use them, and orcs-as-Nazis are probably fine. The problem is how they have been used, and continue to be used. Because if you dress them up in the symbols that have been used for a couple of centuries to justify the oppression of various peoples, then they are a symbol of that justification. Or in other words, if you adopt racist iconography for your orcs, don’t be surprised if people think your orcs are a symbol of racism.

    For example, the basics of AD&D 1e domain play - go find "unoccupied" land, kill or drive off the indigenous humanoids who live there, and invite in settlers of your "race" or other acceptable "races" - are overtly colonial. Note in AD&D the acceptable races are all generally light skinned, and the evil humanoids are yellow (bugbears, goblins), brown (bugbears, orcs), red (goblins, hobgoblins), or black (hobgoblins). At least orcs are sometimes green, but they are never white or pink.

    These humanoids are generally portrayed as less intelligent, coarse, brutish, ignorant, cruel subhuman cannibals with poor hygiene, who live in primitive tribes. All of which are characteristics that have been used to justify the enslavement, subjugation, oppression and sometimes slaughter of people of colour. So if you give your orcs the same characteristics that were previously assigned as racial stereotypes, in order to justify treating them the way those oppressed races were treated, you can hardly fault people for seeing a connection.

    But Aryan orcs in jackboots, or an equivalent rejection of racist iconography? Go nuts.

    1. The "acceptable races" aren't all light skinned. Elves (apart from sea elves) are, but from the 1E Monster Manual:

      Dwarves are typically deep tan to light brown of skin, with
      ruddy cheeks and bright eyes (almost never blue).

      Most gnomes are wood brown, a few range to gray brown, of
      skin. Their hair is medium to pure white, and their eyes are gray-blue to
      bright blue.

      Of ruddy complexion, halflings tend toward brown or sandy
      brown hair coloration, and have brown or hazel eyes.

      Also (from the same book):

      The skin of bugbears is light yellow to yellow brown -
      typically dull yellow. Their hair ranges in color from lusterless tannish
      brawn to brick red. Their eyes are greenish white with red pupils.

      Goblins range from yellow through dull orange to brick red in
      skin color. Their eyes are reddish to lemon yellow.

      The hairy hides of hobgoblins range from dark reddish-brown
      to gray black. Their faces are bright red-orange to red. Large males will
      have blue-red noses. Eyes are either yellowish or dark brown. Teeth are
      yellowed white to dirty yellow.

      Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration
      - brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen - highlights their pinkish
      snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black, sometimes with tan patches.

      So not quite the simple picture that you presented.

    2. "These humanoids are generally portrayed as less intelligent, coarse, brutish, ignorant, cruel subhuman cannibals with poor hygiene, who live in primitive tribes. All of which are characteristics that have been used to justify the enslavement, subjugation, oppression and sometimes slaughter of people of colour. So if you give your orcs the same characteristics that were previously assigned as racial stereotypes, in order to justify treating them the way those oppressed races were treated, you can hardly fault people for seeing a connection."

      Well, I can. The same portrayal can be used to represent white settlers (ask your local First Nations representative for details), or for abstract concepts such as fear and sin.

      Your interpretation is straight-up BS and your use of it betrays you as a totalitarian focused on unjustly making innocent people feel guilty about imaginary crimes in order to feed your own ego's need to be marked out as illuminated and superior.

      You need to think about what you're doing with your life if you need to get your rocks off by telling people that they should be ashamed about things they haven't done and thoughts that they're not having.

  4. I think there's been quite a bit of drift away from addressing the original criticism of orcs that sparked the whole debate, through a combination of telephone-game misunderstanding and willful ignorance by various parties. Originally the problem wasn't that orcs were all evil - after all, the same could apply to mind flayers or red dragons or demons. The problem was that many of the specific words and phrases used to describe orcish traits and society (and to a lesser extent, Forgotten Realms' Maztica, Chult, and Kara-Tur) were the same or similar to the words and phrases used by colonial writers to describe colonized people (Native American, Aborigine, African, etc.). Ditto for the Vistani in Ravenloft embodying stereotypes about the Romani being drunkards and thieves. That's why the primary goal of the movement was to emend specific passages of text, not to simply broadly change their alignment or completely rewrite their descriptions.

    1. Are you suggesting RPG writers invent new words because foul people used those same words in the past?

      Sometimes a word describes exactly what the writer wants to describe, which explains the parallel usage.

    2. The problem isn't brutish monsters. The problem is that racists see others as BEING those brutish monsters, and changing orcs in a fantasy game does little to address the underlying problem except in specific instances...

    3. The problem as stated by Dan was using the same words as racists used to describe those monsters. I think allowing racists to control your vocabulary is silly.

    4. Absolutely. Once we decide people of color aren't monsters, we can reclaim these words for more appropriate uses...

    5. People of Color are not monsters. No role playing game or fantasy book has ever said that People of Color are monsters. So we should be able to use whatever words we need to describe monsters as accurately as possible without tearing pages out of our thesaurus just because racists use those terms.

    6. IF people stop using racist imagery that is in common with orcish imagery, and sufficient time has passed that it is no longer painful for the people who were subjected to racism to encounter that imagery, THEN you can have a conversation about reclaiming the imagery to apply to orcs.

      Otherwise, you don't get to claim on behalf of groups who are STILL discriminated against that they shouldn't be upset when your game mimics their experience of subjugation.

    7. I agree we shouldn't depict monsters as racial stereotypes; but I haven't met ANY humans of ANY ethnicity that were green with tusks...

    8. I have mixed feelings on the issue myself, but I do feel strongly that we should take care to address the real argument, and not mischaracterize competing viewpoints. But while I'm not sure that changing books is really a useful solution, I've also met racists who have literally used the word "orcs" as a dog-whistle to mean either black people or Muslim immigrants. So it's kind of the reverse of how you're looking at it; it isn't an issue of (most) people looking at orcs and seeing people of color, the problem is that the language and tropes surrounding orcs coincide very closely with what racists believe about other groups of people. In my experience, it's orcs that they use as their metaphor every single time - never goblins, kobolds, or any other variety of evil monster - and I don't think that's by accident.

      Also, pedantic correction, there are actually two RPGs that have people of color are monsters: RaHoWa and MYFAROG. Unfortunately, both are kind of banal and don't have the same kind of entertainment value as insanity like FATAL.

    9. My beef is with words. I don't want to give up precise words for an awkward string of adjectives just because some racist used that precise word previously. The context is *similar* but it is not the same and I won't let racists take things from me without a fight.

    10. We can't flee when racists appropriate words for their own vile purposes or we'll surrender everything to them, including the language needed to resist...

    11. So we cant describe monsters because people describe people the same way. You see orcs as what you think racists see PoC. I see an orc I see a monster. I am brown and TBH all this is very insulting. We are not orcs and to say they are the same as us on any level is wrong.

    12. I never commented on here so I dont know how to set my name. Orcs are not brown people. Saying they are treated the same as us belittles real hate. If every RPG vanished from the face of the earth it would not help anyone facing real hate. This is wasted energy and idiocy. Stop saying orcs have anything to do with my race!

  5. If people want to have fake antagonists with nuance use fake people instead of fake monsters, why use fake monsters at all if you turn them into fake people?

  6. Picture a dog chewing itself bloody although nothing is medically wrong with the poor animal...[this will make sense by the end of my reply].

    A major problem I have with the Orc as Nazi analogy is that Nazis look like the people they put in the camps, they look like the guy who runs the convenience and tackle store down the lane, they look like well-groomed smiling media personalities; not like red eyed nightmarish Neanderthals or black-cloaked Vikings from Bakshi's Wizards.

    Shadowrun's Manifestation of the Other Races is equally problematic, but avoids the idea we are discussing by making personality types indicative of what someone would transform into during that period, but falls down when Humans remain, remaining humans who will exhibit the same traits assigned to certain Fantasy Races, much less the reality of nuanced, exceptional/occasional deviations from their normal (trending) behaviours.

    Either Orcs are their own thing, and they tend to be evil (in a cosmos where energies and rings and swords can also be evil), or they inevitably become compared to the actual species which is writing, visualising, and, playing the game.

    No one used to seriously contemplate whether the author of a novel about a mongrel dog surviving in the wild north is about a class of human society. Now, it can be imagined that someone will be outraged by this, because, like the description of sin entering into a innocent's mind who had no conception of the offence, until it was explained to be an offence, now -- now anything can be offensive to anyone for any reason or no reason at all.

    This is the danger in caving to these underminers of rationality; this is what gets men and mostly women hanged for witchcraft; this insanity is what seems to predate every major collapse in the history of otherwise outwardly-unassailed civilisations: the rot starts from within.

  7. Good point about the Natzis Timeshadows. What was nice about orcs was you knew they were evil and you were supposed to kill them.

    1. Sure; not a problem for me, but I generally don't mind who does what to whom in an RPG, so that isn't the issue for me.

  8. "Fantasy is allegory. Fantasy is symbolism. It takes abstract, ephemeral concepts and embodies them for closer examination."

    And orcs are an allegory for the abstract concept that some groups of people are all evil and you can identify them by the color of their skin.

    1. Orcs are an allegory for evil in general, and people of color could very well be the ones fighting them. I find it interesting that no one even entertains the notion of diverse PCs in this context...

    2. The color of their skin isn't what makes an orc an orc.

    3. In Tolkien's world, Orcs were the twisted perversion of elves. They was the worst elves could be: immortality blended with cruelty, efficiency without beauty, power without finesse. They were the product of pure utilitarianism: mass produced war machines.

      In my world they're a hybridization of humans and pigs, with the unfortunate side effect of having the worst traits of both. My orcs have human ingenuity enslaved to the basest appetites. In my world, Orcs are are unchecked greed and shortsightedness - appetites seldom checked by considering the long term consequences of their actions - except by evil wizards who manipulate them.

      And in my world, people Black, Brown, Olive, Red, or White (and any mixture of the above) fight Orcs, and they stand shoulder to shoulder against this ever present menace to human settlements.

  9. I’ve always run my hobgoblins with “foolish consistency “.

    1. I wish there was a way to + a comment, because that is bloody brilliant.

  10. Orcs behave more like Vikings, or the various groups of the Asiatic steppes, Huns, Mongols, et cetera, than any African group. Equating orcs to Africans says more about the people who do so, and how they actually perceive Africans, than it says about the orcs themselves. Bluntly, people who look at orcs and see only Africans, instead of the worst of humanity in total, are themselves racist.

    I wonder what these people might say about Dwarves? What racist sterotypes do they represent? Or elves? Or any other monster in fantasy or folklore?

  11. Very good post. I've tried to find similar words during the past few days but you make a very good point.

    Having evil creatures in a game is, for many players, needed as a form of catharsis, an opportunity to combat evil without having to deal with the complex nature of the real world. These through-and-through evil creatures represent the evil of our world which we can't battle - but being able to bring down evil in a fantasy game may be a way to cope with the injustice we face in our daily lives.

  12. The last paragraph solves a lot of problems with orcs - they're not an individual race, they're human, or USED TO BE human until the evil seized them and changed them. The fantasy idea is that deep, abiding evil and brutality takes a person and changes them not only inwardly but outwardly. (Whether or not redemption is allowed is up to the GM.)

  13. I see that both points have validity, the concept of the 'other'lacking value other than a foe or a resource to exploit and the concept of monsters as symbols of traditional fears or sins (vampires = fear of rape, orcs=hatred, zombies=death/lack of control).

    Both views have a grain of truth. The fact that they can have both meanings at the same time is the true value. For my pcs and I, exploring these ideas are great.

    In the beginning, non-human monsters are just there to kill and take their stuff. As the pcs have gotten to interact with them ( thank you reaction rolls) they suddenly begin to see things differently.

    Sure orcs are savage half-boar beastmen, created to serve in a fading empire's repressive legions, now free. They also are capable of nuance and positive emotions like honor and courage. As my pcs are conquering the wilderness and find themselves meeting tribes of non-humans who do not trust humans,they have to choose between leaving them alone or exterminating them to take their land.
    That's the good stuff. Meaningful choices with real consequences, to me, are the best part of the hobby.

    Having pcs care about the rightness of their decisions and their impact on the game world, which may cause all of us to see the real world with a more critical eye, is the stuff that only a rpg can do.

  14. I have never understood why Orcs can't be anything you want them to be.

    Orcs as people? Sure, why not? PC's parley with, party with, robe or fight with Bandits, Berserkers, Merchants, Good or Evil Wizards etc etc all the time...just like Orcs.

    Orcs as Sub-human Beastmen? A little less of a comfortable stereotype, but one easily overthrown once you get to actually know them, no more alien than Dwarves really, and if you can get along with them-again, all on the PCs to choose...

    Tolkien Orcs aka "corrupted Elves"? Well if you can get along with Elves in the first place you can probably get along even better with a Tolkien Orc. After all, they don't make eternal war on the other Races without some Great Evil driving them, mostly they seem to conduct Border Raids with each other as well as the other races, and no more prone to War than Man, Elf or Dwarf. The Battle of Five Armies wasn't all on the Orc side after all...

    Orcs as Scary Monster Men? Sure why not? Alien, Mercurial outlook, fight you or invite you to drink at the drop of a hat, trick you into things and expect you to know their bizarre customs without explaining? Sure, ANY race from in the Scary, Scary wilderness might be like that! Maybe on a Neutral reaction roll they capture you, throw you in a muddy pit where they beat you with fists, then brand you on the arm with a tribal mark, make you drink Mushroom brew with them, and you all wake up at the nearest clearing with half of your old stuff and a few Orcish additions wondering just what the heck THAT was all about...

    My last campaign used Orcs as the Horrors of Everlasting War. Whenever large battles were fought and enough people were killed, or where massacres of same occurred, there the Bloodrose bloomed, grown fat on the bones of the dead and dangerous to the living. And on the next Harvest moon, those bones would rise with new, changed flesh on them, cyanotic grey with green undertones, not dead anymore but not the men they were, fed on dying dim memories of drum and blade and blood. Anyone they didn't remember or who wasn't like them was either Enemy, Ally or non-combatant and subject to 'tithe'...Orc will fight Orc, Man, Elf, Dwarf or Goblin when they hear the sound of the Drum or the clashing of steel, and sometimes the Orc will join both sides at once as some remember one color banner and some another-war is often all that they remember.

    Kingdoms quarrel these days, and spy and compete with each other, raid each others' borders and wave mailed fists in threat-but gone are the days of hundreds or even thousands facing the other in pitched battle...the threat of famine, bankruptcy, the wailing of widows and orphans were not enough to dissuade Tyrants from painting the earth with hot salt blood-

    -but they hear the confused, raging howls of the Orc, and stay their hands from the slaughter.

    To reiterate-Orcs are anything you want them to be, and so are Elves, Dragons, Vampires etc etc etc.