|Artist's depiction of the comments section.|
So if you're looking for a deeper dive beyond the two options presented above (or if you're confused and looking for context) hopefully this Monday's post will help you out a bit.
But if that's not really your bag, well, my latest Critical Hits module from TPK just dropped this weekend, so you could go check out The Ghosts of Sorrow Marsh instead!
|Seriously, go give it some love!|
First Things First, What is an Orc?
Most of us already know the answer, so go ahead and say it with me! Orcs, as a creation of J.R.R. Tolkien were inherently evil humanoid creatures who served the dark lord and made up the ranks of his foot soldiers. They were corrupted, wicked, and they made up the muscle of the threat our heroes had to face.
|Check out so far?|
The Depictions (And Evolution) of Orcs
Elements of this mythology maintained in Dungeons and Dragons' early days. Orcs were repulsive creatures who were brutal, violent, disorganized, and they typically worshiped/were bound to a dark god who demanded slaughter, sacrifice, and debased acts. While I would argue that maintaining a monolithic culture, and not giving orcs a great deal of depth were issues in the writing, the other issues actually came from their art in the early days.
|And speaking of problematic art...|
Was that intentional? No, probably not. Just as Tolkien didn't state in his books that orcs were supposed to be based on any particular ethnicity or to represent any one group (though he did state in his letters he was drawing on specific ethnicities to make them seem more foreign to his projected European readers), the initial intent was probably not to say Europe good, non-Europe bad. Doesn't mean that's not how it came across, though.
Things got more problematic when orcs stopped just being corrupted evil beings and were given free will and choice. The creation of half-orcs (and eventually of orcs becoming PCs) meant that monsters who had once been entirely used for plot devices now had to become a varied and organic part of the world. But as we saw in Volo's Guide, as mentioned in the original article, there is still a clinging to the idea that all orcs are brutish, savage, and incapable of true empathy and understanding. They're always, at their core, monsters by their very nature. Inhuman. Other.
This becomes really problematic when you look at orcs as a big picture under those circumstances. Because if they can have children with humans, that raises questions of agency, of decisions, and of stereotyping. What was once a generic plot-filler threat is now an entire category made up of individuals who by the lore can be, do, and become what they want the same as any other character. Yet they're still treated as savage, backward, and lesser at the same time. That's frustrating for players who want to be orcs, but it also continues the trend of maintaining that problematic message.
Our Fiction Inherits Baggage (Whether Like It Or Not)
I grew up reading pulp fiction, and there is a breathtaking amount of racism and sexism in those stories. A lot of it was a product of its time, but many among us forget that the stories and tropes of that time didn't just get uprooted and replaced with shiny, new stuff that nixed the problematic descriptions. Many of these elements endured and maintained, until we didn't see them as products of prejudiced attitudes; they were just the way these stories were told.
Bob Chipman explained it particularly well using the trope of The Lost City.
For those who didn't watch it, the trope of The Lost City has its roots deep in European colonialism to Africa. Explorers would find these ancient ruins, and they would be flabbergasted that something like this could be found in Africa. They turned themselves inside out trying to explain it, ignoring the obvious that perhaps they were built by the ancestors of the people who still lived there. Nonsense! Black people could never comprehend the skill or ability it would take to build a castle, ridiculous!
And as Bob points out, that trope kept coming back over the generations. It existed in the time of the pulps, and early adventure fiction, it showed up in Indiana Jones, it was latched onto by games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted... it's a part of so many stories it would take a huge list to lay them all out.
Does that make all the stories who used this trope racist simply because they have their roots in a colonialist view? No, it doesn't. But it is important to hold these stories at arm's length, and ask what part of the original ancestor has survived and thrived in the current example, and how it was able to make it all the way into the modern incarnation. And, perhaps, what to do to fix it so that baggage doesn't weigh on the narrative.
For those looking for a real-world example, The Liberal Redneck Manifesto talks about the battle flag of northern Virginia... what a lot of people immediately think of as the Confederate flag. It was flown in a losing war, and then it was resurrected as a symbol of hate by organizations like the KKK, and by segregationists who wanted to cow and frighten black people. The flag became a symbol of several Southern musicians as well, and it was adopted by many who saw it as a rebel icon... the problem was that it still held all those older, more awful connotations for black people, and other ethnic minorities. So even if someone wears that flag because it's something waved around by a musician they like, or it's something they associate with family and good times at home, it's important to recognize that there's more to its legacy than the parts you've seen and know. You have to look at all of it, and at what message it sends to other people.
Oh, So Now It's Racist To Have Orcs as Bad Guys?
This is probably the dumbest thing I've seen come out of this conversation, so I'm going to address it here. It is not racist to have orcs as bad guys in your game. It's not racist to play an orc character. The issue arises when people ignore the history of how orcs have been depicted (and the real-life cultures often associated with them through their art, cultural trademarks, etc.), and when they don't put in the work of actually developing orcs in their settings.
|There is no replacement for hard work.|
However, they are one of dozens of different settlements around the world, and each of them has their own unique culture, background, history, and feel in the context of the setting. The settlement of Averaka is a hard-working fishing village on a northern coast. Orcs and half-orcs in the Mwangi Expanse are often valued for their strength and durability, and they often hold important positions in tribes. Orcs in the deserts form their own familial groups, trading and intermarrying with others. Orcs and half-orcs have a wide variety of traits players and DMs can pick to customize them to a given area, but more importantly the lore of the setting makes it clear that attitudes, styles of society, etc. are a product of their history in a given area, rather than some in-born sameness that all orcs share.
That's the level of work it takes to make a sentient race a real, breathing part of a world and setting, and all of that has to carry through to how they're treated in the world as well. If a settlement is being raided by orcs, ask why, and build that into the adventure. Are they a war band who can't find a master, and they would rather take from the farmers than lay down their swords? Are they starving and pushed out to the edge of the badlands, so they have to steal in order to live? Is there a disagreement over the terms of a peace treaty, or are they mercenaries whose services have been bought by a bigger NPC with a hidden agenda? Is this a land-bound group of pirates looking to get back on the river, but they need the resources to repair their ship?
All of those are workable, and they add extra depth and meaning, allowing orcs to stand on their own as characters instead of as caricatures.
Lastly, Consider The Problematic Core of Many Adventures
Now, I know we're talking about orcs here, but this is something that Mark T. Hrisho brought up on his blog and I think it's a point worth adding to the discussion. Because a lot of our fantasy RPGs have another piece of baggage that has colored many of our monstrous races; mainly that if a given area of the map doesn't have people who look like our party living in it, then it doesn't really qualify as settled or explored territory. It is, instead, the edge of the known world, and the last edge of real civilization beyond which lives only darkness, and savagery.
|Helmets on, I hear comments coming!|
And I'm not the first one to point out that in these scenarios we're basically barging into these creatures' homes, killing their families, and taking their stuff.
Even if it's not a job to kill a certain number of non-humans, these scenarios are often painted as, "protecting the light from the darkness of the savage lands," or something similar. Which basically states that none of the cultures of the other beings who call this region home, from the lizard men, to the catfolk, to the gnolls, are "real" people. They're just savages. Monsters. Little better than animals, and often not even worth as much XP.
Am I saying that fantasy RPGs who use this framework purposefully set out to be some kind of subliminal argument for the ideas of Manifest Destiny, or declarations in favor of colonialism? No. However, messages exist in fiction whether they're intended or not. Just like how early Disney princesses being damsels in distress wasn't likely intended to send the message to young girls that they had no agency and should wait to be rescued, but it can be argued that message is present regardless of the intention.
"Problematic" isn't a term reserved only for racial slurs and misogynist rants; it means that we need to look at the history of something, the messages within it, and how it came to be what it is. We need to be intellectually curious, honest with the history, and we need to understand that just because someone didn't intend something to send the wrong message, say the wrong thing, or to smuggle in an offensive attitude, that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Because it's only by looking these elements full in the face that we can make the games we love better, deeper, more complex, and in the end, less problematic.
And like I said in It's Okay To Admit There Are Problems in Your Hobby, you can like something problematic without being problematic by association. But we should all seek to be intellectually curious about these issues, and to remember that just because it may not affect us personally, that doesn't mean it's somehow not a real issue.
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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday!
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