Thursday, May 21, 2015

The “Eternal Orc” phenomenon

Ever since Tolkien first talked about the armies of Mordor being orcs, it seems a universal constant that every high fantasy* setting has some sort of variation of the theme.  This is even more prevalent in RPG’s.  I am hard-pressed to think of a setting that I have read that doesn’t have some “evil” race as the default minions of the Big Bad’s army (of course, the Big Bad is another element that could have its own post).  Let’s look at some examples from my own fuzzy memory.

Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk/Etc.
From the earliest days of D&D, it seems to always have been a given that orcs exist, they are evil, and they fill the ranks of invading armies.  Modeled in large part on Tolkien’s work, orcs provide instant universal enemies for players.  They are always unquestionably (and sometimes, inexplicably) evil, savage, and available in large numbers.  They also tend to be somewhat easy to kill.  Basically, they are the fantasy multiverse’s cannon fodder.

Dragonlance was unique not only for putting dragons front and center, and making them the focus of the entire world, for the most part, but it also created a new race that effectively replaced orcs as the rank and file of the evil armies.  In fact, orcs don’t actually exist on Krynn.  This was a really big thing, if you think about it.  Not only because orcs are such a fantasy mainstay, but also because their replacement, the dreaded draconians, came in different shapes and sizes, with different abilities and aspects.  I remember reading the Chronicles and being wowed whenever the Companions came across yet another breed of draconian.  In my opinion, this is probably the best instance of using non-orcs for that universal purpose.

Dragon Age
I have been playing a lot of Dragon Age (Origins and Awakenings) on my PC, thanks to my wife’s obsession with it.  And she is planning on running a tabletop campaign using that setting and rules soon.  In  Dragon Age, orcs are replaced by the Darkspawn.  These creatures are similar to orcs, but more brutal, more savage, and frankly, more disgusting, if you can imagine that.  They are integral to the plots of the video games (especially Origins), and so are necessary.  Like Dragonlance, there are no orcs in DA either.  However, functionally, Darkspawn are pretty much just like orcs.  They are tough and scary, but ultimately, not that hard to kill.  And aside from the taint in their blood, there’s little to set them apart from other evil monster races.

The Hyborian Age
I would also contend that Robert E. Howard might have planted the seed that Tolkien grew.  Although they never become an evil army marching across the continet, the Picts in Conan’s world are very orc-like in many respects.  True, they are human, and they are modeled largely on Native Americans (viewed through the lens of Old-Worlders).  But, they do have a certain primordial savage quality about them that makes them seem almost orcish to me.  And if I recall, during the ancient past detailed in his essay The Hyborian Age, the picts actually did march across the lands and conquer nations and peoples, before being pushed back by Conan’s ancestors.

So, what else is there?
These are just a few examples.  And I am sure others might recall more such races in fantasy gaming and literature.  But, as a chronic creator and tinkerer myself, I often wonder if there are other races that could fit this bill, given the right treatment.  Just using races familiar to D&D players, one could do the same with goblins, hobgoblins (I’m digging that one a lot, actually), bugbears, lizardmen, kobolds…pretty much any humanoid monster race could be elevated to be the “orc” for a given world, I suppose.  (Try this list: Humanoid (Dungeons & Dragons)).

So, which would you choose?

*I define “high fantasy” as a type of fantasy that is half or more populated by fantastical races and creatures.  Typically, elves, dwarves, wizards, trolls, etc.  Your definition may vary.


  1. I always figured the picts were proto-scotsmen/irishmen/ gaelic

    1. They definitely were. But, the way Howard used them in many of his stories, they share some common traits with Orcs, as presented in a lot of later fantasy fiction.

  2. I'm a big fan of the Warhammer 40K orc myself. Just love the simple attitude.

    1. That was my preferred army when I played.