Reclaiming the Orc

There’s a tendency amongst writers, game designers and others to reject a lot of the ideas from older editions of games. As we’ve gotten older we’ve gotten more sophisticated and we’ve recognised that the world is not black and white but, rather, shades of grey. Like it or not we’ve also become a lot more ‘politically correct’ (horrible term) and a lot of the old school material that we used to play with now tweaks our racism/imperialism radar and offends our sense of tolerance and moral relativism. All to the good and to people’s credit but there’s a problem with it in that we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

In the old days orcs were irredeemably evil. Their alignment defined them completely and they would rape, pillage, burn, sacrifice and raise hordes to attack civilisation. Orcs were the quintessential common enemy, an enemy that you could kill with total moral impunity and no sense of guilt. We ruined that with white-man’s guilt about imperialism in our past and seem to have rewritten orcs into misunderstood noble savages. Now they’re simply of a different culture, a different way of life that clashes with civilisation rather than being irredeemably evil.

While I sympathise with this more nuanced and morally grey point of view I also spend a lot of time thinking about the implications of fantasy worlds and the knock on effects that they would have. Amongst the staples of a traditional fantasy world are the true existence of good and evil and the presence of gods that embody and promote forces, powers and ‘alignments’. In such a world morality can be black and white and if gods are present and manifest there’s no room for doubt or uncertainty, even though you may oppose them as in the Greek myths. In such a world it is perfectly reasonable and consistent to have a race that is irredeemably evil, servants and creations of dark gods and set to do their bidding.

So, how can we go about making orcs evil again, rather than cute, laughable and familiar? I don’t think this is about doing any new per se, I think it’s about looking at the worst aspects of humanity, man’s inhumanity to man, the unreformed examination of the less noble parts of the ‘savage’ and embodying it in a cruel and powerful creature that’s a credible threat, not something to laugh at or to reclaim.

Here’s my suggestions to make them evil, brutal and horrifying:

  • Orcs cannot create, they can only destroy. All their gear, equipment, homes etc are taken from others.
  • Orcs take slaves – because they’re congenitally unable to create.
  • Orcs serve dark gods, work to their ends, sacrifice upon their altars.
  • Orcs are cannibals – they believe they draw power from devouring their enemies, and each other.
  • Orcs are all male. Half-orcs are extremely rare and face a huge amount of prejudice and a lifelong struggle against their instincts. Orcs reproduce by rape and institutional slavery, often taking ‘breeders’  from people they have conquered in tribute. Their young grow very fast.
  • Orcs cannot be redeemed and if raised away from orc culture their nature will always come out in bloodthirsty rampages with terrible consequences.
  • Orcs are pack predators, determined to assert their strength over others. Anything weak is to be dominated and destroyed.
  • Orcs are natural berserkers, like sharks, a sniff of blood and they ‘frenzy’, fighting to the end.
  • Orcs are cruel, unbelievably cruel, they get the same ‘reward’ from being cruel and nasty that other races get from affection and comfort or a good meal. Torture is their entertainment, torment their relaxation.