Orcs still equal “savage peoples”

May 9, 2008

So we just got the preview of 4E Orcs and they seem to be shifted a bit more towards the Norse/Celtic look, the language to describe them still mirrors the stuff they used to pull in the justification of the conquest of the Americas…

There’s nothing new here, but the descriptions I find triggering and problematic, if only because it mirrors it so closely. Bloodthirsty, lazy, savage, cannibal, tribe, despotic, etc. I suppose if they weren’t aiming for the 14 year old crowd, we might even get the “sacrifices babies to their god, Moloch, I mean, Gruumsh”. It’s also not hard to see how these ideas still float around as false judgments of us.

Edited to Add:

Naamen’s excellent post on Savagification. Context, context, context.

It’s always interesting how fantasy/sci fi has this deep obsession with manifest destiny- less technology/magically powerful races want to destroy you and take your stuff, more technologically/magically powerful races want to destroy/enslave you and take your land…

I don’t have a problem with the concept of a monster race on a certain level, after all, it is a game about fighting monsters. I think I find it more problematic that it’s drawing so much similarity to real world ugly that I have to question which is worse – the authors consciously drawing on the concepts to justify the fiction of violence (which I doubt they did), the unconscious drawing upon those concepts, which shows you how deep the conditioning runs, and, if this is a baseline archetype for “monster”, that not only throughout much of history, but even today, they can so easily dehumanize us and see us as monsters.


  1. I always love the part when some race in a rpg is called uncivilised, savage or in this case “plague of thecivilized races”, but if you read a bit further they seem to have a sozial structure, shamans, gods, rituals, blacksmithes, armorers and speak two languages.. sigh.

    I think it’s very hard to make a monster race right. You can have monsters but how should a culture of monsters or a “evil race” look like. It’s so easy for people to be clichĂ© or draw on racists sterotypes. Especially if the writers are trying to define one race as good and one as evil.

  2. Yeah, and it also leads to trying to redeem it by using the “noble savage” cliche.

    I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing for a while and trying to create interesting societies in my games and ignoring what the books say.

  3. Hi Dave,

    One of the reasons we have media criticism is that, while, yeah, gamers can, do, and have been playing and ignoring problematic elements, it still doesn’t remove the fact that our hobby has them to begin with (or, beyond beginning, continues to embrace).

  4. Agreed, I like to think that changing it in my own game is my small method of protest.

  5. The sci fi/fantasy issue (ah them pesky Klingons/Romulans etc.) is aggravated in D&D by the basic structure of “alignment as a colour coding system for what you can kill” is the underlying problem. An “Evil” race echoes bias and racism because it is an attempt to create an entire category recognizable by physical features and label them as “inferior on some scale of morality if not civilization and also irrecoverably so and thus always killable” even if they walk around talking and wear clothes and have social structure etc.

    There have been small concessions to this (Monster Manual notations that racial alignment is not an “always” matter etc.).

    I prefer a no-alignment campaign where there are factions that support the conflict for game plot but there is no overall requirement that everyone in either faction is good or evil.

    E.G., I wrote into my own campaign a long time ago that goblins were brought to the world to be slaves to work in mines. They hate humans because it was a human empire that did this and some human societies still think the only “humane way to manage the goblin issue is to enslave them” (seeing goblins as “an issue” because they reproduce faster than humans). As a rule it’s not healthy to fall into their hands no, but there is a reason for it that lies in history and past wrongs.

  6. See, I don’t have a problem with the idea of the “Enemy” as enemy- it works well in zombie movies, Aliens, Terminator, etc. I’m even willing to accept movies where the bad guys are fodder.

    My specific issue is the way in which it directly mirrors a lot of messed up stuff in real world race relations.

    For example, you might have justified the Goblins’ attitude in your game, but it pretty much mirrors how a lot of noncolored people see the situation of say, African Americans in the US. It still doesn’t put empathy or protagonism onto the role of the goblins, nor does it take them away from stand ins to a political stance.

    To give a counterexample- for my O&O game idea, orcs are the children of the deity Madness. It takes them so far from the idea of a “culture” or a people, and instead turns them into a mythological monster, as much as Aliens or Terminators aren’t codable to a real world people or culture.

    You can have a monster race, still keep the core concept, it just doesn’t need to echo racist propaganda to work.

  7. This comment is being approved only for the sake of demonstrating the “logic” of racism. See how this guy’s argument is that racism is a form of creativity, and therefore should be protected, and yet the speech arguing against hateful shit should not be? Oh, and he adds genocidal slurs to add to the weight of his argument.

    Clearly, RPG’s are not the game for you. Try playing monopoly, a mechanical game with no room for creativity. Because that’s what you want isn’t it? People behaving exactly the way you want, otherwise you going to condenm them to hell, just like good old Kramer who got his career destroyed because of a bunch of nigers who had nothing better to do but screw his performance.

    Again, go play monopoly!

    Wow Paul, since creativity means so much to you, I bet you were there defending “Christ in Piss” and other such pieces, right? No, probably not, because you’re not defending creativity, you’re defending white supremacy. If you bothered to read anything else I’ve written in this blog, you might have seen that I don’t find a disjunction between defending RPGs as a wonderful tool of creativity AND demolishing racist bullshit.

    Take your ass and your asshat behavior home. You will not be allowed to post here again, and odds are, I won’t approve anyone else who does this shit. Feel happy. You’re an example of the worst of white people.

  8. In my game, Orcs are Elves. My game has moved steadily towards science fiction mechanics under the high fantasy mostly through nanite and yoctite (yoctites are to nanites as nanites are to humans) The short lifespan stems from the fact that they’re a type of wood-elf (many of the mountain dwellers note that Orcish claws are horribly maladapted to underground life, but great for climbimg trees) stuck living underground and therefore not getting the nutrients (and nanotechnology) that other Elves get. The violence stems from a biological urge to get where the food is — a forest, combined with a completely rational anger at humans and elves who spend alot of effort keeping them from where the food is.

    Figuring all this out and what to do about it is is one of the plotlines of the global campaign.

  9. I think it’s always interesting how much fantasy that doesn’t fall into race war, falls into class war.

  10. “To give a counterexample- for my O&O game idea, orcs are the children of the deity Madness.”

    Am I reading you right– that this concept of orcs is non-racist because the racists/imperialists of yore never used *this* concept to “explain” the existence of a non-european culture?

    • Valid. For clarity: I mean literally spawned via magic, not “a group of people who bear and raise children that we blame on coming from a deity of madness”. Or, more simply – like “monster spawners” in Gauntlet.

      Of course, Manifest Destiny is basically the inverse of that “Look at all these people we’re killing who are magically disappearing from the earth according to God’s will!” (the modern version simply omits how the Natives disappeared as if it were an event minus human agency or process throughout it all.)

      • That’s probably the correct approach if you want to have opponents who can develop some level of combat tactics, but who can be killed without any bothersome ethical questions, like what do we do with orclings. And that’s how they look in Tolkien.

        But I think there’s an older version of the “savage other” that deserves consideration. It’s not those weird people who live across the ocean or across the country, but the ones on the next ridge who eat corn when its still green. Even the ones from the other side of town who have weird accents.

        • Tolkien’s orcs -are- racialized.

          In a private letter, Tolkien describes them as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes… …degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types”.

          This comes out especially strongly in the section with the half-orc, played up for all the classic “treachery” and deception tropes.

          • Absolutely. If you’re talking about “people who aren’t human,” you’re not only talking about race, but very likely doing racism. I can’t help but think that Tolkien’s time in South Africa, with all the complex forms of catalouging people and assigning them privileges accordingly had an impact on his work. It’s hard not to see parallels beteen his orcs and the half-enslaved African man working in a factory who, cut off from his family, might seem to be born from the machine.

            I’m not trying to suggest we can’t have orcs in our d&d, but I don’t know if anyone’s found a way to do it that shouldn’t make us a little uneasy.

          • I wish it was as easy as just blaming S. Africa, but at the time “scientific racialism” was pretty well culturally embedded around the world at that point. The fear of infiltration by “people who can pass” wasn’t solely a S. African issue – it was a major thing in anti-Jewish racism, a large fear in America, etc.

            I’m pretty sure this is why undead or robots tend to be popular in spec fic- they fulfill the swarm humanoid enemy role, without necessarily requiring anyone to think about sentience or families. The problem lies in that this requires both to avoid any indication of sentience, AND to also not fall into the trap of hitting assigned racist markers.

            And, all that said, I’m not even asking for this perfect example from WOTC – I’m only asking that they not use language that was literally used for genocide.

  11. And all I’m asking you is to realize that we’re all walking through a cow pasture after a rainstorm and that pointing at others’ shoes and laughing too hard makes it all the more embarassing when you step in it yourself. I do, however, appreciate your raising your hand and saying, “I have a problem with this.” If I worked for WOTC, I might try making the humanoid “races” more like their Norse origins– hard-working, expert smiths. But it takes about two seconds to see how that will lead to anti-Semitism. In the games I run, I don’t use orcs. The PCs fight other humans and everyone they kill is someone’s son or daughter. There are times when this feels wrong, like I’m encouraging a red state fantasy of how to deal with disaffected urban youth. Because I do think there’s a place for true heroes in RPGs– characters who keep their word, who don’t steal, who make peace and don’t kill other people except in the most desperate circumstances. Your “true monster” approach seems the right engine for that.

    • that pointing at others’ shoes and laughing too hard makes it all the more embarassing when you step in it yourself.

      Thing is: I’m not pointing to laugh. Millions of NDNs live in the US – the media has and continues to erase their experiences and existence. It’s 2011, and our largest publisher in the industry, still is giving us the words of the 1800’s.

      The problem with your analogy is that the cow pasture makes it sound like the shit is supposed to be there. It’s more like people shoveled a bunch of it into other people’s kitchens.

      When I point to publishers fucking up, it’s because they are, in fact, mass media producers- their portrayals go far and wide (how many people keep saying NDNs have “disappeared”?). When I point to gamers fucking up, it’s more of a symptom of the problem of the overall culture: generally a group of folks who spend a lot of time reading, mostly like researching obscure facts, yet regularly are mired in gross stereotypes, and who exercise their imagination all day but can’t imagine people as people.

      I was hoping your initial comment was to actually try to reduce problematic stuff in our hobby, but it really seems like your only goal here is to soften the issue. I’m not here for debate or to educate. With that I’m going to call this discussion done.

      (I’ll go ahead and turn off comments, not because I think you’ve said anything exceedingly horrible, only that I’ve found over the years that typically a) when I decide to disengage, other people rarely respect that decision, and b) pointing out people’s mild discomfort/derailing patterns usually leads to increased vitriol and racism. I’m going to hope you’re not that way, but this saves you the time and me the possibility of disappointment.)

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