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.

9 responses to “Reclaiming the Orc

  1. Interesting and very disturbing (which may be what you were going for). I think that the distinction between good and evil – without being a caricature – is necessary and missing at many tables, but I would definitely feel uncomfortable at a table where this level of evil was in-your-face on a regular basis.


    • It’s not for everyone and the sexual aspects are particularly difficult for many groups but you can fade them into the background and leave them to implication while retaining the other aspects.

  2. I like it because it makes orcs nasty again – but, unless I missed something, how do you get more orcs? If all orcs are male, and half-orcs are “extremely rare”, where do all the other orcs (the ‘pure’ orcs) come from?

  3. Leaving aside the ethics of their reproduction, how would they capture enough to be self-sustaining? Any sensible person is going to take their own life rather than be captured by orcs. Of those females captured, some are just going to be killed by the cruelty of the orcs and not live long enough to bear young. Their numbers would simply diminish far more quickly than they could be replaced.

    As a one time only, magically created horde rolling across a continent. I can see it working for a time but for long term racial survival, not at all.

    • Regretfully real life has shown that people can be made to live in such circumstances for a protracted period. Make double, triple or even more births more common and you account for some of that as well as more pliable evil races as vassals.

      • Yes, once they are captured, people generally try to survive even in the worst circumstances. But I would say that most soldiers would kill their wounded friends and parents would kill their children before letting them fall into the hands of the orcs. Especially once it is learned how the orcs reproduce.

        Other evil races would have to either fight the orcs or be wiped out in a generation. Orcs are not going to let the others races breed in captivity to replenish the number of females, not in their nature. So once the current generation was used up, more orcs but no more breeding stock.

        These orcs give new meaning to the term zero sum game. Leaving nothing but barren wastes behind them, constantly having to advance just to maintain themselves in some form.

  4. Its intriguing. I myself came here because i got linked via the Orc and rabbit picture, and am a big fan of having races that have strong cultural and biological differences but are interpreted realistically (as in, without magical aid, a race can’t be irredeemably evil). However, as i like the notion of creatures that cannot be evil/good because it is literally impossible for them (Demons, angels) it makes sense to consider how this might work on a less divine scale

    (such as these orcs).

    Not a criticism, but I feel this was mostly done because of the recoil of fantasy starting out with evil orcs (Lotr) and evolving to have humanized orcs (Warcraft), so basically the article being about orcs is arbitrary. I dont say this as a criticism, but as to point out that it can be done with either races.

    I think, since you thought -this- out, that you might consider two different things.
    1) considering the original notion of fantasy races and considering what they would be like. For instance take elves and consider what they’d be like if they where baby stealing, amoral, human sized faeries. But on the scale presented in most modern fantasy (as opposed to faerie creatures that are depicted such, but are usually encountered on a singular basis)
    2) finding different ways to make certain races evil or at least amoral and destructive ways. It reminds me of how my and a friend talked about how Warcraft humans are at least physically different from real humans. Even if everything else is the same.

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