What is race? This question is quite broad, and investigating it proves a colossal task. Trying to take account of various racial definitions and conceptions indicates that race itself isn't a stable concept. In general, social scientists understand race as a complex social construction and not biological fact. Put another way, race emerges as a product of discourses of difference. The dominant discourse shapes how we communicate and identify race as a quality of human nature. As I indicated in my introductory article, marginalization occurs when individuals fail to conform to dominant discourses, and that makes racism dependent on the structure of racialized discourse.
So, what is race in fantasy? Race is presented in fantasy roleplay literature through description and narrative. In many cases, race is introduced through encyclopedic headings and tables, dividing humanoids or -oids into distinct subcategories. Monster Manuals, Player Guides, and Core Rulebooks make up the authoritative discourse on any particular fantasy conception of race. These texts operate in a similar way as cultural narratives, prescribing particular arrays of physical and cultural distinctions between different races.
However, the methodology for determining and arranging these distinctions is left purposefully vague. Paizo's Advanced Race Guide provides their proposed definition of race in its introduction:
Race in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game mixes biology and culture, then translates those concepts into racial traits. Yet since both biology and culture are mutable—especially when one considers the powerful forces of magic—racial traits can be so diverse that two elves can be extremely different while still manifesting aspects of their shared heritage and culture. A race's traits, its history, its relations with other races, and the culture that all of these things imply—all of these frame your character.
This ostensibly nuanced account of race explains that it is a synthesis of "biology and culture." However, what this explanation fails to account is why biological and cultural distinctions are parsed out among the myriad of other differences, to then be taken together to make up a set of exclusive racial categories. Why is there a reduction (or "translation") of cultural and biological distinctions into race categories? What makes race a stable concept in which culture and biology congeal? How can races in pathfinder be "mixes biology and culture," when elves are a coherent category despite distinct differences in traits, heritage and culture?
"Real world" race is a complex thing, and attempts to build concise, universal definitions of race generally fails. Rather, individual men and women have complex ideas about race. What makes them up, how they're determined, and what kind of history they entail, are all facets of race conceptualization. Ann Morning, in The Nature of Race, explains race conceptualizations:
[The] term racial conceptualization [refers] to a web of beliefs that an individual may hold about what race is. Our concepts of race are not limited to abstract definitions but rather incorporate a wide range of notions of what a race is, what distinguishes one race from another, how many and which races there are, how we can discern an individual's race, and how or why races emerge. In short, racial concepts are working models of what race is, how it operates, and why it matters.
Race conceptualizations have correspondence between the "real world" and fantasy. Races in fantasy depend on making use of our race conceptualizations, rendering race an intelligible object for roleplay use. Whether intentionally written or not, incoherence and contradictions arise in these fictional accounts of race. But these internal inconsistencies are not unique to just fantasy conceptualizations of race, as they were readily apparent in contemporary "real world" race conceptualizations.
Fortunately, locating consistent and coherent race conceptions is not necessary for the study of race or racism. Instead, exploring inconsistency and incoherence within racialist discourses is a powerful indicator that race itself does complex social work, separate from its methods of conceptualization.
This way of looking at things suggests that we proceed not by defining 'race' conceptually—in terms, that is, of necessary and sufficient conditions. We should focus , rather, on a different set of concerns: how has the term been used at different times, what has it signified, and how has it served to articulate a conception for its users of self- and group-identity, of self and other?
The historical articulation of race has been a necessary part of defining "the other." Because of this, race follows the contours of the current dominant discourse, making itself visible through prevailing delineations of difference.
Fantasy Race Conceptualization and Orcs
Above I provided Paizo's definition of race, which is different from a conceptualization of race. As Morning explains,
A "definition" carries the connotation of a formal, abstract, and explicit summary statement, one that is articulated in a clear and thorough manner. Dictionaries readily provide definitions of race, such as "a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc" (Jewell and Abate 2001, 1402). . . Formal definitions, however, cannot capture ideas that are inchoate, unexamined, or unexpressed. Nor do they easily extend to the body of ideas about human difference that might not fit neatly in a concise dictionary passage, but which are dimensions of how people understand race. A definition of race given in response to the question, "What is race?" (or "What is a race?") might not explain what distinguishes one race from another, how many races there are, or where races come from. Yet whether we examine them consciously or not, our answers to these questions and others make up the complex of our understandings about what race is. These notions contribute to a multifaceted model of race that helps us navigate a social world populated by races. How to determine a person's race; which races exist in the world; what it means to belong to a certain race—these are issues that life in a racialized society raises, and to address them we draw on our personal (yet deeply social beliefs about the nature of race (Morning 2009). The term racial conceptualization—rather than the narrower word definition— captures this wider range of thinking.
In this article I discuss race as it is conceptualized for orcs. Here I investigate how orcs are "made up" through authoritative racism, drawing on social scholarship to make sense of the orc race. Race conceptualization is negotiated between roleplay fantasy writers and the dominant discourse, therefor we should expect to see a correspondence between "real world" racism and "fantastic" racism. Race is made intelligible and stable through authoritative work, for example science (in the real world) or "rulebooks" (in fantasy roleplay). The kinds of structure and characteristics that make up racialist discourse is reflected in fantasy literature on race. By exploring "what are" orcs, we can begin to grasp how race conceptualizations (and racism) are rendered coherent in fantasy roleplay literature.
Orcs make for a useful starting point for this kind of project because orcs have a rich fictional history spanning the past sixty years. From Tolkien to Paizo, orcs are standard mooks, they are presented as "hordes of standard-issue, disposable bad guys whom The Hero mows down with impunity." This requires that fantasy authors "make up" orcs to be the other. The other is something that is both explicity "outside" the self while simualtaniously "made up" in contrast to the self. This dual position is what makes them effective mooks, because it distances them from ourselves while sustaining them as objects for our use.
Player characters are made up of "us," as fictional accounts of people articulated through correspondence to our own world. Humans are a "race" featured in fantasy roleplay because they are us. We recognize them as expressions of all that is taken as ideal about human beings. In both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, humans are presented as having the potential for a diverse physical and cultural composition. Humans are presented as the dominant race in D&D, Warhammer, and Pathfinder. Adventures and rulebooks are written from the perspective of humans, and even more specifically American humans. This cultural and physical location of the authors places humans as the default, and all other races along various dimensions and degrees of difference. Dwarfs are short humans, elves long-lived and lithe humans, halflings childlike humans, and gnomes another variation of short humans.
Because of this racial dominance, I have become accustomed to abbreviating the dominant discourses that make up the privileged players identity as human(oid)s. The Human(oid) is all those unmarked, unremarked, or corresponding things that are the inverse of the other. To put plainly, the human(oid) is white, male, cisgender, heterosexual and ablebodied. These characteristics are made invisible through defining the other as the opposite.
What is important to understand about the human(oid) in respect to racial conceptualizations is that "white" is not simply a descriptor of skin color. "White" is the unmarked privileged category of race, to which the other fails to embody. "White" is civilized, cultured, clean, balanced, nuanced, etc. "White" becomes something more than just skin color, in the same way that the other race isn't just the apparent description of skin or hair color.
If the reader is somewhat unconvinced that the human(oid) is defined to be white, I suggest reviewing the graphics for all the core races in Paizo core products. With the obvious exception of half-orc, all other human(oid)s core races are almost always white. Looking back through previous iterations of D&D and fantasy roleplay available to me, whiteness is even more pervasive, extending to include humans as well.
I have placed the -oid in parentheses to indicate that the status of human is contingent on whether the creature or culture conforms to the dominant discourse of difference. D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder makes use of discreet, exhaustive creature and racial categories. Humans, elves, dwarves, halfings, gnomes, half-orcs, half-elves, and orcs are of the humanoid type, and their respective races make up their subtype. This means that humans are given the designation Humanoid (human) in their character descriptions. All other will still be labeled Humanoid(Race), included under that heading of human(oid), but not human. This has lead me to find it convenient to refer to this commonality in category as human(oid), to recognize that all other races are defined by their deviation from the dominant image of human(oid).
To what extent Tolkien's work has influenced the culture and structure of fantasy roleplay is debatable (Gary Gygax disputes significant influence over the game). What is apparent is that contemporary racial imagery in fantasy roleplay and literature draws significantly from Tolkien's epic tale.
I will be the first to admit I've never much cared for Tolkien or Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Though I recognize the importance of Tolkien's work on modern fantasy fiction, I don't find his work particularly enjoyable. Whereas his work may be classic, in my opinion, it hasn't aged well. Part of this poor aging comes from his simplistic imagery and conception of "good and evil." John Yatt provides a pretty accurate summation how evil and race is presented in Tolkien's universe.
. . .genetic determinism drives the plot in the most brutal manner. White men are good, "dark" men are bad, orcs are worst of all. While 10,000 orcs are massacred with a kind of Dungeons and Dragons version of biological warfare, the wild men left standing at the end of the battle are packed off back to their homes with nothing more than slapped wrists.
In Middle-earth, orcs make up a variety of "breeds," which include goblins, hobgoblins, Uruk-hai and half-orcs. As a Tolkien wiki tells it, Orcs were bred into existence by a powerful, god-like being Melkor. Melkor created hordes of orcs to fight for him against his enemies. A few millennium after their creation, Orcs were enlisted by Saruman and Sauron to fight against the heroes of the LOTR. As literary objects, orcs were Tolkien's villainous mooks.
Tolkien characterized orcs as inherently evil, bring together physical descriptions of their depravity with the language of barbarism. Orcs are "...squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types" (emphasis added, Carpenter and Tolkien, 2002).
The skin color of orcs is part of a general symbolism in Toklien's work, where light/white is associated with good and dark/black is associated with evil (this isn't nearly universal though, as Saruman the white is unequivocally evil). Orcs are nearly always black, and without culture. Their entire existence depends on their use by major antagonists, but otherwise were quarrelsome and undisciplined.
Taken together, Tolkien's work articulates orc depravity through eurocentric beliefs about civilization and culture. Orcs are made up to the other; uncivilized and uncultured. They represent, within Tolkien's work, a number of moral lessons, not the least of which depend on racial allegory to the orient and racist hierarchy.
Tolkien's work provided some of the base material for what we know as modern European fantasy. Gary Gygax helped formulate the first editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and his writing still influence roleplay today. His original game rules for Chainmail were expanded into Dungeons and Dragons we know today.
Chainmail was different from other table-top games of the era. The key change that proved revolutionary for gaming was that each player was assigned one character to play. Prior to this, most table-top games were miniature war games, involving two or more players, each controlling many individual tokens on a map. The token units weren't characterized, but were rather treated as resources to be managed by the player.
Chainmail, and subsequently Dungeons and Dragons, changed the dynamics of the game by making players intimately connected to their characters, that were in turn made extraordinary subjects for roleplay. The Player Characters (PC) became more than just a resource, they became the persona of the player. However, what didn't change was the dynamic of the "opponent," the Game Master (GM). The convention was for the GM to still manage the enemies as a series of resources used to challenge the PCs.
Gygax argues that Toklien's work had only a limited influence on Dungeons and Dragons. Providing the language and theme of his work, but ultimately Gygax argues that his work goes beyond Tokliens, as Toklien's work isn't suitable for roleplay. "I found the "Ring Trilogy"... well, tedious. The action dragged, and it smacked of an allegory..." (Gygax, 1985). I have to agree with Gygax, as he states "Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic" (ibid). LOTR might be an epic adventure, but it lacked the necessary tone for enjoyable roleplay.
But even if Gygax recognizes the how Dungeons and Dragons necessarily deviates from Tolkien's fantasy for the purpose of dynamic and exciting PCs, the imagery and structure of non-player characters (NPCs) remains the same. Gygax didn't import goblins, hobgoblins and orcs into Dungeons and Dragons as one entity. To maintain a diverse selection of mooks, Dungeons and Dragons established separate "breeds" of baddies which continued through fantasy roleplay games into modern day.
Below I've reproduced some of the text found in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Monster Manual published in 1977.
Orc tribes are fiercely competitive, and when they meet it is 75% likely that they will fight each other unless a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) will sufficient force behind him is on hand to control the orcs. Being bullies, the stronger will always intimidate and dominate the weaker. (If goblins are near, for example, and the orcs are strong enough, they will happily bully them.) Orcs dwell in places where sunlight is dim or non-existent, for they hate the light....
Orcs are cruel and hate living things in general, but they particularly hate elves and will always attack them in preference to other creatures. They take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc) but not elves whom they kill immediately.
Description Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration—brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen—highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black, sometimes with tan patches. Even their armor tends to be unattractive—dirty and often a bit rusty. Orcs favor unpleasant colors in general....
Like Tolkien, Gygax has articulated the depravity of orcs through their physical presentation: darkened skin and adorned with "unattractive" colors. Orcs inferiority to unmarked [white] human(oids) beings is presented as fact, reflecting real world racism in high fidelity. "Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration" is stated as fact, supposing that darkness in skin and hair makes up physical proof of orc inferiority. Whether conscious of it or not, this depiction of orcs depends, as much as Tolkien's orcs, on the articulation of inferiority through racialist discourse. That is to say, orc descriptions are articulated through racism that organizes bodies hierarchically by characteristics such as skin and hair color. Orcs "appear disgusting" at first sight, and their descriptions of orc behavior is used to justify the original skin-deep judgment.
The predominately white consumer base of roleplaying games might find little offensive about these kinds of descriptions. This is because reference to the already established evilness, violence, and disparity of the other is authoritatively established in the text. However, there is something deeper to this "lack of offense." These "extra" descriptions go beyond the skin to justify, not describe. They "make up" the reasons to justify racism. The predominantly white roleplay consumer struggles to see the racism inherent to these kinds of descriptions because we never have to struggle against their authoritative powers. We are white, and therefor we easily rebuke the assignment of moral depravity based on skin color.
When Peggy MacIntosh writes about white privilege, she notes that white people can open the paper or turn on the television to see white people widely represented (1989). In the introduction, I argued that the human(oid) is dominantly white, and is represented through roleplaying literature as predominately white. On the rare occasion non-white images are made, they are presented as degraded forms of human(oid)s, lacking some of the ideal qualities of the white, heterosexual, cisgender, male human(oid). The invisible and default assumption of Whiteness is part of white privilege. This privilege is packaged within roleplay literature, and makes up a part of the dominant discourse which marginalizes people of color.
Published by Games Workshop in 1986, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was Games Workshops pen-and-paper spin-off of their Warhammer Fantasy Battle games. Like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay changed the dynamic of player-character dynamic while not quite changing how enemies are understood. Having the same European fantasy theme as LOTR and Dungeons and Dragons, Games Workshop's literature drew on notions of innate evil manifest in physical descriptions.
Games Workshop added their own spin on orcs, "diversifying" them and providing two varieties in their core rules.
Orcs are powerful warriors - the toughest of the goblinoid races, and often install themselves as leaders of their weaker cousins. They are repulsive monsters who love inflicting pain, and delight in cruelty and slaughter. Orcs are always fighting and if they cannot find enemies to fight, they will fight each other. The whole of Orc technology and culture is geared towards conflict. They are dangerous individual foes, but lack the organisation or motivation to present any real long-term threat to humanity....
Physique: Orcs are the largest of the goblinoid races, and can often reach almost seven feet in height. They are powerfully-built, with crooked legs and a shambling, ape-like gait. Their arms are long, so that their huge hands almost reach to the ground. Their faces are brutal with huge teeth and jaws, and their small piggy eyes peer from underneath ugly, over hanging bony ridges. Skin is often greenish or a dark olive brown, and is covered in warts, scars and filth.
Black Orcs are the largest and most terrible of all the goblinoid races. Their awesome size and strength is reputed to be the result of age-old tribal cannibalism whereby the smaller and weaker Orcs are eaten - often alive. This violent method of selective breeding - know in the Orc terms as 'runt noshing' - has produced a breed of Orc that carries the evil traits of its race to the very worst excesses. Mercifully, it has not increased the race's low intelligence. Powerful creatures as they are, living only for warfare and destruction, it is almost as though they were deliberately bred by some twisting intelligence, intent on creating a master warrior. Their strength and size suits them admirably for this, but their violent, unthinking nature precludes the discipline required by such a design.
Physique: Black Orcs are by far the largest of the goblinoid races. Their squat powerfully-muscled bodies range from 6 to 8 feet in height, and they are almost as broad as they are tall. Long centuries of inbreeding have led to certain Orcish features being exaggerated in the Black Orcs, and their broad, protruding lower jaws have earned them the nickname 'bulldog heads.' As their name suggests Black Orcs are invariably dark-skinned; dark brown and grey are the commonest colours.
(Games Workshop, 1986)
Games Workshop continue the same trend set by Tolkien and AD&D. The color and evil is presented as a quality of breeding. Quite literally, "black Orcs" are made more violent and evil through inbreeding, in turn growing more "dark-skinned," than their less evil and less "black" sister races.
Warhammer orcs are featured in the Core Rulebook as classified under "Humanoid Creatures" heading of the bestiary, cataloged along side dwarfs, elves, humans, and halflings. Despite being tabled as human(oid), the text refers to orcs as a "goblinoid race," lumped in with goblins, trolls, and hobgoblins. The text does make reference to genes for a number of humanoids—expositing that lizardmen are "derived from a similar genetic stock to troglodytes." Warhammer makes direct linkages to ideas of genes and species which had become, using genetics as a basis for fantasy racial classification.
This particular track of racial conceptualization is not new (in fact, Mourning's book is an amazing primer on the subject). In 1986, the same year as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Nancy Leys Stepan published "Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Sciences." In this paper, Stepan discusses how metaphors operate in both science and literature to articulate human difference in intelligible ways. Racial and gender inferiority is rendered measurable through scientific discourse, making up categories which collapse broad spectrums of difference into discreet readable identities. These authoritative accounts of human difference, as they are made to relate to race or gender, become enmeshed in the dominant discourse. Racism and sexism are taken up into authoritative discourses, and reproduced to conform to the new arrangement of the dominant discourse. Science is deployed as a means to makes racism "sensible" in the 20th and 21st centuries. In turn, fantasy literature used kinds of scientific analogy and authority to make fantasy races intelligible to fantasy roleplayers.
Fast forward twenty-six years, to Wizards of the Coast publication of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. When people speak of D&D today, it is most likely a reference the Dungeons and Dragons as published by Wizards of the Coast. 3.5 was perhaps the most prolific of all the rule sets, producing the major consumer base we see today. Even though Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition in 2007, there is still a significant number of players who remain with this popular rule set.
Below, I give the entry for Orcs in the 2003 Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.
This creature looks like a primitive human with gray skin and coarse hair. It has a stooped posture, low forehead, and a piglike face with prominent lower canines that resemble a boar's tusks.
Orcs are aggressive humanoids that raid, pillage, and battle other creatures. They have a hatred of elves and dwarves that began generations ago, and often kill such creatures on sight.
An orc's hair usually is black. It has lupine ears and reddish eyes. Orcs prefer wearing vivid colors that many humans would consider unpleasant, such as blood red, mustard yellow, yellow-green, and deep purple. Their equipment is dirty and unkempt....
Orcs believe that to survive, they must conquer as much territory as possible, which puts them at odds with all intelligent creatures that live near them. They are constantly warring with or preparing to war with other humanoids, including other orc tribes. They can ally with other humanoids for a time but quickly rebel if not commanded by orcs. Their deities teach them that all other beings are inferior and that all worldly goods rightfully belong to the orcs, having been stolen by the others. Orc spellcasters are ambitious, and rivalries between them and warrior leaders sometimes tear a tribe apart.
Orc society is patriarchal: Females are prized possessions at best and chattel at worst. Male orcs pride themselves on the number of females they own and male children they sire, as well as their battle prowess, wealth, and amount of territory. They wear their battle scars proudly and ritually scar themselves to mark significant achievements and turning points in their lives.
An orc lair may be a cave, a series of wooden huts, a fort, or even a large city built above and below ground. A tribe includes females (as many as there are males), young (half as many as there are females), and slaves (about one for every ten males).
The chief orc deity is Gruumsh, a one-eyed god who tolerates no sign of peaceability among his people.
(Wizards of the Coast, 2003)
This might be the first time that orcs women (or at least "females") are mentioned in relation to the generic default male orc. AD&D's entry on orcs does mention that "females equal 50% of the number of males" in any orc lair. AD&D's entry fails to note how orcish society organizes gender, though the entry implies male orcs are the default leaders.
3.5 explicity names orcs society as patriarchal, noting how orc women are treated no differently than non-orcs. "Females are prized possessions at best and chattel at worst," while male orcs dominate the hierarchy of power within orc society. This entry also marks the first instance of "orc society" being describe explicity as a characteristic of the race. Orcs are still depicted as a chaotic rabble, unable to be at peace with "all intelligent creatures" and themselves.
Because orc women are mentioned only in relation to orc men, the majority of orc descriptions take male orcs as the default. Orc women are doubly marginalized because they become only noteworthy as minor exceptions to the male orc rule. Orc women only exist as a proportion to men (AD&D), as property of men (D&D 3.5) or when subject violence by men (which is discussed in the next section on Pathfinder). The descriptions of orcs favor men as the default and as the privileged perspective. Orc society is defined by the dominance of men rather than the subordination of women. Orc society is defined through male human(oid) eyes, which takes for granted the privileged status of the men's perspective.
Among feminists, this "default" man's perspective is termed Androcentrism. This term is over a hundred years old (Gilman, 2009), and is perhaps one of the essential ideas underlying modern feminism. Androcentrism is the privileging of men's perspectives over women's. In general, androcentrism is understood to be one of the fundamental characteristics of patriarchy, as it marginalizes the experiences and thoughts of women. Androcentrism makes women the other, as examined in Simone de Beauvoir's seminal(!) text, The Second Sex: "the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity" (Beauvoir, 2010). Orc women are made just as depraved as orc men, except that they lack sufficient power to overcome orc patriarchy.
The writing on orcs is androcentric, and following this, the descriptions provided by Wizards of the Coast and Paizo are characteristic of patriarchy. These authoritative texts describe orcs as patriarchal, while simultaneously evincing patriarchal authority. This fact is important, because it allows us to recognize how privilege makes itself invisible through "making up" the other. By calling out orcs as patriarchal, these publishers can make clear their position against patriarchy. But even in making these positions clear, they are still subject orcs to the very same patriarchal positioning (androcentrism) necessary to lend authority to their texts.
Shortly after Wizards of the Coast transitioned to Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, Paizo Publishing put out their own Core Rules. Adapting 3.5 rules, Paizo's Pathfinder can be thought of as a polished set of house rules. In conjunction with there new rules, Paizo sustained their publication output through development of Golarion, there campaign setting. This provided grounds for the republication of classic Dungeons and Dragons races and monsters.
Paizo's first Bestiary published in 2010, features the same orcs we've seen throughout much fantasy literature.
This savage creature looks like a bestial version of a savage human, with green-gray skin and greasy black hair.
Along with their brute strength and comparatively low intellect, the primary difference between orcs and the civilized humanoids is their attitude. As a culture, orcs are violent and aggressive, with the strongest ruling the rest through fear and brutality. They take what they want by force, and think nothing of slaughtering or enslaving entire villages when they can get away with it. They have little time for niceties or details, and their camps and villages tend to be filthy, ramshackle affairs filled with drunken brawls, pit fights, and other sadistic entertainment. Lacking the patience for farming and only able to shepherd the most robust and self-sufficient animals, orcs almost always find it easier to take what someone else has built than to create things themselves. They are arrogant and quick to anger when challenged, but only worry about honor so far as it directly benefits them to do so.
An adult male orc is roughly 6 feet tall and 210 pounds. Orcs and humans interbreed frequently, though this is almost always the result of raids and slave-taking rather than consensual unions. Many orc tribes purposefully breed for half-orcs and raise them as their own, as the smarter progeny make excellent strategists and leaders for their tribes.
In 2012, Paizo published their Advanced Race Guide. This book aimed to "offer 36 different playable races, not counting subraces." In this text, Paizo further expanded on Orcs, in what seems to be a failed attempt to transform this monster race into a playable option.
Orcs are aggressive, callous, and domineering. Bullies by nature, they respect strength and power as the highest virtues. On an almost instinctive level, orcs believe they are entitled to anything they want unless someone stronger can stop them from seizing it. They rarely exert themselves off the battlefield except when forced to do so; this attitude stems not just from laziness but also from an ingrained belief that work should trickle down through the pecking order until it falls upon the shoulders of the weak. They take slaves from other races, orc men brutalize orc women, and both abuse children and elders, on the grounds that anyone too feeble to fight back deserves little more than a life of suffering. Surrounded at all times by bitter enemies, orcs cultivate an attitude of indifference to pain, vicious tempers, and a fierce willingness to commit unspeakable acts of vengeance against anyone who dares to defy them.
Physical Description: Powerfully built, orcs typically stand just a few inches taller than most humans but have much greater muscle mass, their broad shoulders and thick, brawny hips often giving them a slightly lurching gait. They typically have dull green skin, coarse dark hair, beady red eyes, and protruding, tusklike teeth. Orcs consider scars a mark of distinction and frequently use them as a form of body art.
Society: Orcs usually live amid squalor and constant mayhem, and intimidation and brutal violence are the glue that holds orc culture together. They settle disputes by making increasingly grisly threats until, when a rival fails to back down, the conflict escalates into actual bloodshed. Orcs who win these ferocious brawls not only feel free to take whatever they want from the loser, but also frequently indulge in humiliating physical violation, casual mutilation, and even outright murder. Orcs rarely spend much time improving their homes or belongings since doing so merely encourages a stronger orc to seize them. In fact, whenever possible, they prefer to occupy buildings and communities originally built by other races.
Relations: Orcs admire strength above all things. Even members of enemy races can sometimes win an orc's grudging respect, or at least tolerance, if they break his nose enough times. . . .
Orcs view humans as race of sheep with a few wolves living in their midst. They freely kill or oppress humans too weak to fend them off but always keep one eye on the nearest exit in case they run into a formidable human. Orcs look upon half-orcs with a strange mixture of contempt, envy, and pride. Though weaker than typical orcs, these half-breeds are also usually smarter, more cunning, and better leaders. Tribes led, or at least advised, by half-orcs are often more successful than those led by pure-blooded orcs. On a more fundamental level, orcs believe each half-orc also represents an orc exerting dominance over a weaker race.
Alignment and Religion: Orcs have few redeeming qualities. Most are violent, cruel, and selfish. Concepts such as honor or loyalty usually strike them as odd character f laws that tend to afflict members of the weaker races. Orcs are typically not just evil, but chaotic to boot, though those with greater self-control may gravitate toward lawful evil. Orcs pray to gods of fire, war, and blood, often creating tribal "pantheons" by combining these aspects into uniquely orc concepts. . . .
Paizo provides a much "deeper" perspective of orcs than previous iterations, yet they are really no different than Tolkien's. Going back nearly sixty years, the tradition of orcs has been expanded but unchanged. It is almost hard to believe that Paizo published the advanced race Guide with the intent to make orcs an accessible race for roleplaying. Rather, the description provided suggest strongly that orcs are irredeemably evil, creatures only suitable mooks for the PCs to mow through.
Like previous iterations, orcs are characterized by their lacks and extremes. Orcs lack typical human(oid) intelligence, by exceed average human(oid) "brute strength." Orc society reflects these excesses in both structure and description. Physical power characterizes the hierarchy of orc society, in which gender plays a role. Pathfinder's description of "orc patriarchy," where "orc men brutalize orc women," and in turn they both brutalize others. This structure seems to naturalize gender violence among orcs, relegating it to a byproduct of general orc violence and a sort of essential gender inequality.
At the intersection of orcs and women, we can see how two distinct systems of oppression (racism and sexism) "make up" orc women. Dominant discourse tends to describe gender violence among marginalized groups as a defining characteristic, which makes them subordinate to white, heterosexual culture. This of course makes D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder's description of orc gender violence very problematic. Orc women are presented as imbued with the same essential violence as orc men. These authoritative accounts of orc gender dynamics, present orc violence against women as the an exceptional orc trait absent from human(oid) society.
Within contemporary discussions about women of color, there is a strong tendency to do two things. First, there is effort on the part of White people to export gender violence into non-white communities. Domestic violence is painted as a problem for other communities, purposefully painting these groups as internally dysfunctional and at odds with White culture. This is analogous to how orcs are painted as internally chaotic and at odds with all other "intelligent races."
Second, there is double work being done on women of color. In combination with the exporting of gender violence, White, patriarchal culture designates violence against women of color as "due" because of their nature. For example, Collins demonstrates how Controlling images normalize violence against black women:
The dominant ideology of the slave era fostered the creation of several interrelated, socially constructed controlling images of Black womanhood, each reflecting the dominant group's interest in maintaining Black women's subordination. Moreover, since Black and White women were both important to slavery's continuation, controlling images of Black womanhood also functioned to mask social relations that affected all women.
According to the cult of true womanhood that accompanied the traditional family ideal, "true" women possessed four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Propertied White women and those of the emerging middle class were encouraged to aspire to these virtues. African-American women encountered a different set of controlling images.
The image made by Paizo of the orc women who brutalized by orc men and "abuse children and elders" makes up a strategy to justify the violence the human(oid) players will bring to orcs. It makes itself invisible by explaining gender violence into orcs as a means to reflect the interests of the dominant human(oid) characters. Intersectionality is the feminist study of oppression at the intersections of difference systems of oppression. With roots in Black feminist thought, intersectionality has done great work bringing together queer, critical race, and feminist theory.. The core of intersectionalist theory can be traced as far back as the 1970s and the work of the Combahee River Collective:
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.
(Combahee River Collective, republished in McCann and Kim, 2010)
Intersectionality continues to be a powerful way to articulate the interaction and interlock between different systems of oppression. Patricia Hill Collins work mentioned above is an example of intersectional study of oppression. She makes visible how controlling images of women work through racist and sexist systems to make up black women as doubly marginalized. In this way, we can see how roleplaying literature works to "make up" women who are doubly subordinated to both the racist and sexist images of orc women. The invisibility of white privilege and androcentrism makes this quality of fantasy literature doubly invisible, hiding how oppression is embedded in scientific and authoritative accounts of race and sexism.
While there are some distinct similarities between these different instances of orcs in fantasy roleplay, there is also some changes that trend over time. Though the descriptions and qualities of orc fantasy races have undergone important changes, there are a number of common threads that can be traced between all of these iterations. What is important for our discussion is the understand how these threads are articulated through real world things, and very often those things are embedded in racism and sexism.
To quote Anita Sarkessian, "remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it's more problematic or pernicious aspects." I sincerely love table-top roleplaying games, and as a corollary I love engaging in critical dialogue about table-top roleplaying games. The analysis I provided here is meant to do at least three things.
First, as argued in "Let's Play a Feminist Game," interrogating dominant stereotypes, narratives, and stories is a necessary part of undoing heterosexism, cissexism, racism ablism, and sexism. These things are deeply ingrained in our society, and as such they permeate nearly every layer of our culture. Gaming culture is no different in this respect, and as such much be made subject to the same kinds of critical discourse that we subject other (arguably) more important things.
Second, as I also argued in the introductory article, we need to learn and understand how systems of oppression makes themselves invisible, and how certain tools and ideas can make visible these systems. One important way to make themselves invisible is for privilege and systems of oppression to work in tandem. Because of this, intersectionality is one of the strongest tools that we have to work at undoing oppression and privilege throughout society.
Finally, I made this post (and hopefully more in the future) because I believe that these kinds of discussions ought to be made more available to those people who are unaware of these issues. Like I said, systems of oppression and privilege makes themselves invisible, and one important goal of my work is to work to make visible these things to those who have significant privilege. Roleplay has historically played an important role in the development of my social conciseness. Ideally, by publicly discussing these things, I can help enable roleplay that resists and subverts the already pervasive and pernicious presence of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, and sexism.
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to share this blog with your friends and family!
de Beauvoir, Simone. 1952. "The Second Sex: Introduction" In Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim, editors, Feminist Theory Reader, pages 35–42. Routledge, 2010.
Carpenter, Humphrey and Christopher Tolkien, eds. 2002. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
The Combahee River Collective. 1977. "A Black Feminist Statement." In Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim, editors, Feminist Theory Reader, pages 106–112. Routledge, 2010.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge
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Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Race Guide. 2012. Redmond, WA: Paizo Publishing
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Stepan, Nancy Leys. 1989. "Race and Gender: The role of analogy in science." Isis 77(2):294–77.
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Yatt, John. 2002. "Wraiths and race." The Guardian.
Updated as they arise!
Paizo's forum: "An interesting article on the history of the depiction of orcs in tabletop games." This discussion was locked by Paizo management.