Monday, October 28, 2013

Writing Racism into Our Fantasies:
Orcs from Tolkien to Paizo


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.

(Paizo, 2012)

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.

(Morning, 2011)

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?

(Goldburg, 1992)

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.

(Morning, 2011)

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.

Making up Human(oid)s and the other

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).

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

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.

(Yatt, 2002)

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.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (TSR Hobbies)

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....

(Gygax, 1977)

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.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st Edition (Games Workshop)

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.

Alignment: Evil

Orc, black

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.

Alignment: Evil

(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.

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 (Wizards of the Coast)

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.

Pathfinder (Paizo Publishing)

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.

(Paizo, 2010)

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, 2012)

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.

(Collins, 2000)

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

Goldbery, David Theo. 1992. "The Semantics of Race." Ethnic and Racial Studies 15(4):543–69.

Gygax, Gary. 1977. Monster Manual. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Hobbies.

Gygax, Gary. 1985. "The Influence of Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games " Dragon. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Hobbies.

Monster Manual v.3.5. 2003. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Morning, Ann. 2011. The Nature of Race: How Scientists think and teach about human differences. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Pathfinder Roleplaying Bestiary. 2010. Redmond, WA: Paizo

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. 2009. Redmond, WA: Paizo Publishing

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Race Guide. 2012. Redmond, WA: Paizo Publishing

Player's Handbook v.3.5. 2003. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. 1989. "Race and Gender: The role of analogy in science." Isis 77(2):294–77.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. paperback ed. London, UK: Hogshead Publishing Ltd.

Yatt, John. 2002. "Wraiths and race." The Guardian.

External Discussions

Updated as they arise!

Reddit: "Writing Racism into Our Fantasies: Orcs from Tolkien to Paizo"

Paizo's forum: "An interesting article on the history of the depiction of orcs in tabletop games." This discussion was locked by Paizo management.


  1. DnD has a unique problem. The players want to fight bad guys and be heroes. These bad guys should have weapons and plans and forts. So out of all the bad guys in DnD, you have evil humanoids right alongside the dragons that burn down cities.

    So, orcs were created to fill this gap. A player could look at them, instantly recognize them as being evil, and then kill them. And this is a good thing, because players don't want to waste time figuring out morals. They want to get to the exciting parts: fighting bad guys and saving people. I don't think warhammer's orcs were inspired by the real world or by imagination as much as they were created to fulfill a need.

    And, there HAS been a trend to make orcs green, which helps remove them from any comparison to real world races (a very different meaning of the word, as you point out).

    How many of your objections would remain if orcs were conceived as universally blue-eyed and blond-haired? And how do you feel about dwarves and elves?

    1. Yes, I agree that D&D has a problem, and that problem takes the form of inherently and recognizably evil humanoids. The problem with conceptualizing races as evil is that you have to articulate it through some sort of reasoning about inherent evil, and the reasoning presented above relies on correspondence with real world racism. I would say the most obvious way to avoid this is to get reject the whole idea of "evil races" from the game.

      No doubly "blue-eyed and blond-haired" orcs would change the details of my argument. But as I pointed out above, the inferiority of orcs to human(oid)s is articulated through more than just skin color, it is caught up in descriptions of orc society, hygiene, intellect, aesthetic taste, etc.

      Um... I feel okay about dwarves and elves. I tend to think that their close similarity with humans makes them a little boring, but otherwise I don't have any immediate feelings about them.

    2. Actually, we don't have to wonder what the author's response would be to racism against Nordic types from Gygax. We already know her response: assent via silence (isn't that what all the lefty kids are saying these days? Silence is assent?).

      Gygax put very blatant racism against Nordic, fair-haired types throughout his Greyhawk setting. If memory serves, the Suloi were one such evil, light-skinned, -eyed, and -haired evil peoples, but as far as I could tell, all of the Nordic races were evil, going by their histories.

      I've never once seen anyone even so much as mention this blatant racism from Gygax, even though it's far more direct and explicit than the once-removed, supposed racism of orcs or other humanoids as stand-ins for dark humans (their status as stand-ins having become a complete non-sequitur in an era where every other picture depicting a good guy is depicting a dark-skinned good guy (or gal), despite the overwhelming pastiness (and guy-ness) of the customer base).

      I wonder how many roleplayers unconsciously hold their RPGs even closer for the refuge they provide from the peecee nannies of the world?

    3. I am not sure where you're going with this.

      So, in respect to Gygax's alleged prejudice against fair haired, light skinned Nordic folk: I would be interested in reading a more detailed study of the imagery and narrative supporting this claim. It certainly would be interesting. But I'm not sure it is analogous to the kind of racialism (or racism) I outline in this piece. But regardless, I don't approve of prejudicial depictions of "real" world races in fantasy, even if the race in question is ostensibly white.

      But I do agree, there are probably role players who utilize fantasy as a place to act out dreams of racial dominance through utopian (or distopian) dreams. But I'd like to imagine that they're a tiny fraction of role players.

  2. Quite a thorough analysis of a race many consider as core to the fantasy gaming experience as elves and dwarves. The place of evil, what defines evil, and how our portrayal of evil has evolved through the years is nowhere as starkly illustrated as with orcs.

    Last year several of us at Paizo participated in a fantastic dialogue over on the Gaming as Women website regarding the half-orc and its implied (and more than implied) origins. (The discussion lives here:

    Orcs, as with most aspects of the Pathfinder roleplaying game, live a dual life as the somewhat generic stereotypes presented in the Pathfinder core rulebook line (which are designed to be campaign neutral and campaign accessible) and the orcs of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting. While I do think the design for the orc cleaves too closely to historic viewpoints, and the argument that evil things do evil things is a somewhat rote defense for the inclusion of objectionable or offensive topics in any media, I think that much of this thinking originates from decades of elaboration upon a single trajectory—a trajectory so clearly documented here. It’s sort of the thinking that orcs are portrayed the way they are because that's what they are, and to present them in any other way would make them not orcs (or, rather, not appealing to those who want that sort of traditional orc). So how do you change a trajectory that's been going strong for a hundred years without it being an obvious, jarring deviation?

    (Continued in Replies...)

    1. For Paizo, amid our other offerings, part of the answer has been to present heroic alternatives to orcs and their offspring that not only stem from that trajectory, but acknowledge that it has existed for as long as it has. Probably the best example of this is Pathfinder's inclusion of a female half-orc iconic character, Imrijka. The Pathfinder iconics are our stand-ins for the players of every RPG game, they're the protagonists in our art, they're the faces of our players, they're our expression of heroism in our campaign setting. Imrijka is a hero for what she has chosen to be, not because of what she's overcome or because she's bucked any racial handicap (her complete background lives here:

      While Imrijka serves as a very visible example of how we'd like to see half-orc heroes portrayed, I think the more interesting direction we've taken with the race is in acknowledging that half-orcs are not a new thing. In fact, for as long as orcs and humans have been living in proximity, half-orcs are not only not monsters, but are no longer only literal half-orc and half-human hybrids. With generations and generations of half-orcs in existence, this is a race that breeds true in Golarion, the world of the Pathfinder campaign setting—half-orc parents have half-orc children. Therefore, it's entirely possible to have or play a half-orc character that not only didn’t arise from some crime, but knows and loves both of her parents. We gave this concept a home in our campaign setting book Land of the Linnorm Kings with the town of Averaka and will be expanding it even further in an upcoming Player Companion. I’ve seen the concept of the moral orc and half-orc done before, but I can’t say I’ve seen it in a world that also accounts for their immoral brethren.

      Are these solutions? I don’t think you can have solutions to history. But are they options? Are they steps away from the baseline—and deliberate ones at that? Hopefully that’s obvious. But is the effort complete? Absolutely not, there’s still plenty of work to be done. These aren’t considerations being made for orcs—orcs are make believe—these are decisions pertaining to one very specific part of our game to help gamers of every stripe know that they’re welcome in our world, and more importantly, at our game tables. After all, the point of Pathfinder is to be together with friends and tell the stories we all want to tell.

    2. As the author highlights, articles and discussions like this have an important role in the life of any ongoing story, making it clear to creators what the audience wants. If you have strong feelings about things you want to see more of or less of in Pathfinder, by all means, continue writing, discussing, and letting us know. The creators of Pathfinder are quite active on the message boards at and I encourage everyone who loves that game and who has opinions on its course to chime in on the ongoing conversations there or to start their own. We’re always listening.

      Finally, I just wanted to digress to something I find very useful whenever trying to affect positive changes—especially to a large and seemingly slow-moving industry. Every year at Gen Con I participate in a panel called Queer as a Three-Sided Die. Something that comes up every year is “I’m not LGBTQ, but I want to support my friends in my work or fiction or whatever, but I’m worried that in doing so I might accidentally insult them. What should I do?” Our advice every time—aside from resounding thanks—is that we don’t expect our allies to be perfect. All we can ask is that our allies do their best, learn from their mistakes, and strive to do even better next time. I hope that Paizo’s intention to be strong allies to gamers of every gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and other walk comes across clearly in what I feel is a very strong relationship with our readers. But we’re always learning, always refining, always changing, and always seeking helpful criticism.

      No matter our cause, our own effect on our allies can’t be understated—especially on those who have only limited experiencing with prejudice of any sort. Education, patience, and discussion—at least in my experience—win more and stronger allies than outrage and damnation. There will always be places for that, but rarely between friends. That is absolutely not a suggestion to quell criticisms, but rather to consider the intention behind acts and my personal constant avocation of counseling over condemnation.

      I know this got wordy, but if anyone would like to continue the conversation with me directly, feel free to e-mail me at

      Again, thanks for the fantastically detailed and well-researched article and for continuing such an important dialogue.

      F. Wesley Schneider
      Paizo Publishing

    3. "No matter our cause, our own effect on our allies can’t be understated—especially on those who have only limited experiencing with prejudice of any sort. Education, patience, and discussion—at least in my experience—win more and stronger allies than outrage and damnation. There will always be places for that, but rarely between friends. That is absolutely not a suggestion to quell criticisms, but rather to consider the intention behind acts and my personal constant avocation of counseling over condemnation."

      This is a debate that has gone in marginalized communities for a long time. It's not something we've never considered. To what extent should marginalized groups educate potential allies? Does the burden of responsibility here fall on the marginalized group, or do those who proclaim their allyness have a responsibility to educate themselves? Do members of marginalized groups have a right to express their anger and frustration? Etc.

      The problem is, this conversation hasn't stayed within marginalized groups. People outside those groups have jumped into, and continue to jump into, this conversation. Telling marginalized groups that their anger is not an effective political strategy has itself been used as a political strategy. It is a strategy that has been used to dismiss the concerns of marginalized groups. It is a strategy that has to been used to try to control marginalized groups, to tell us what is and isn't appropriate to feel. It is a strategy that has been used to continue the marginalization of these very groups it claims to be supportive of.

      When this strategy is deployed, regardless of the intent of the person espousing it, it lends strength to these hostile usages. It strengthens the idea that marginalized groups should contain our anger. It strengthens the idea that our focus should be on making "allies" feel comfortable and welcome. It strengthens the idea that the feelings of non-marginalized groups are to be held as more important than ending our marginalization.

    4. Yes, I've read Brie Shedlon's "Paizo Publishing and Pathfinder – Half Orc Origins." I really enjoyed it, and her insight was really thoughtful. In fact, this article originally had a section discussing half-orcs, but I cut it out because the subject deserved a more thorough analysis on its own.

      "So how do you change a trajectory that's been going strong for a hundred years without it being an obvious, jarring deviation?"

      I guess I don't put that much moral weight on the history of racist trajectory. To put it less bluntly, I don't think that the long, continuous history of orcs (from Tolkien to Paizo) is sufficient reason to sustain it. There may be motivators, like profit or nostalgia, that make the use of the traditional orc tropes desirable. But there are serious problems with articulating orcs through contemporary racist discourse, and those problems need to be elucidated.

      I appreciate the details about Imrijka, but I'm not understanding what you think her relation to orcs means in this discussion. I guess my first thought is that this article is about orcs, not half-orcs. As the ARG presents it, half-orcs are a distinct race. In the introduction of this article, I show how the ARG definition of race does not make up a racial conceptualization, and how in turn makes the concept of races messy. If the intent with Imrijka is to make up a half-orc that redeems the presentation of orcs... well that gets lost in translation.

      Your response about detailed individual orcs Pathfinder Campaign Setting does not change the fact that real world racism is irreducibly essential to the way the race orcs are presented in fantasy, and that includes Pathfinder Core material. Escaping this reality/fantasy may not be easy (I certainly don't have an easy answer), but this fact still remains.

      I appreciate you coming here and engaging in the comments. I know this only responds to about half your content, but I don't really have an articulate response to the rest at the moment. I think the discussion of Paizo's intent, effective political/rhetorical strategies, and alternative places to have this discussion are all worthwhile topics. But I don't have anything profound to offer right now.

      Large Swarm of Feminist Bees
      Brooklyn, NY

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. (Tried to move this under the first response. Guess I can't. :P)

      I can see both sides of this philosophy, but I can only speak toward my own experience.

      When people have come to me for my opinion on their work's intersections with LGBTQ topics, I have gladly made the time to offer my feedback. Even when something I find insults me, it's clear from their approach that it wasn't intentional and, best of all, provides the opportunity to start a dialogue—to collaborate and share vantages on differing experiences. I feel like those instances have been insightful for the writer and they have certainly been heartening for me.

      On the other side of that, I've done quite a bit of work in the past year involving transgender heroes. Being cissexual, this is not a world I have personal insight into. Fortunately, I have several friends and willing advisers who have been kind enough to read my work, give me their personal feedback, explain topics I wasn't formerly aware of, and provide me with what have been nothing short of mind-broadening insights. I've relished these interactions, treasured the connections they've strengthened, and will certainly continue to hold such dialogues as vital parts of my work and continued education.

      I have also done my fair share of yelling. I've seen defensiveness come of that. I've seen stubbornness and intractability. I've seen total avoidance. I've also seen worse. I rarely see much in the way of mea culpas. I suppose walls can be broken down with such tactics, and certainly inequalities can be exposed when the message reaches the right combination of people and wills. But ultimately I think I'm probably more of a hearts and minds kind of guy. :)

      But as before, all of this is the opinion my experiences have led me to. I certainly encourage everybody to express their interests in the manners they've found effective.

    7. (Yeah, I don't really understand the comment implementation of Blogger. I'm thinking someday I'll migrate to a better platform).

      I guess I'm not sure whether you're responding to myself, because this seems mostly addressing Hauptsatz comment.

      I guess, looking back over your original comments, I am actually having a hard time seeing where you're response connects with the article I wrote above. If you came here to provide a defense for Paizo's choices, that's fine. But I think it's orthogonal to the article I wrote.

    8. Sorry to baffle folks, looking back, a morning full of being interrupted while writing this definitely got me hung up on the gender violence angle as it pertains to the Pathfinder orc. We’ve been doing a lot of work on that front recently, so it’s obviously been at the forefront of my mind. That’s part of the reason I started in with highlighting half-orcs, but also because that's the race through which so many RPG players interface with orcs. Even in games that might not include orcs, the half-orc race often remains available and has its own concerns that stem from its parent race. If orcs are going to take a direction other than that which they have in the past, I think the shift is likely to start with the players and heroes most connected to them. Hence, our interest in finding healthy portrayals and a home for this race.

      "I guess I don't put that much moral weight on the history of racist trajectory. To put it less bluntly, I don't think that the long, continuous history of orcs (from Tolkien to Paizo) is sufficient reason to sustain it. There may be motivators, like profit or nostalgia, that make the use of the traditional orc tropes desirable. But there are serious problems with articulating orcs through contemporary racist discourse, and those problems need to be elucidated."

      I don't disagree, but I think that something fundamental changed during the course of your timeline. At some point, we stopped thinking of orcs as monsters and started thinking of them as people. I don't believe the creators of Dungeons & Dragons thought of orcs much differently than they did basilisks or trolls—which is to say as challenges to reward heroes with experience, gold, and a sense of accomplishment. At least for most games I don't think they were designed to be things with feelings and cultures, falling into only a slightly different classification than traps. They were evil things to be smashed by champions.

    9. As these games have grown, as these stories have evolved, our tolerance for two-dimensional characters, even in our monsters, has decreased. The number of words that have been spent on orc culture in the past five years probably rivals the amount spent in the past twenty. But I still think the concept of the orc as person is relatively young.

      In trying to lend new insight to orcs, I think many authors have gone to what they've considered first sources—Tolkien, Monster Manuals, etc—in which this race is still little more than a monster. People shaped, evil, and having great numbers, but little more than that. So into their work they've poured nods toward the savagery that seems to define what little has been consistently agreed upon, as well as elaborations. (Things have gone more than a little dark.)

      And that's been the way of it—especially complicated by the inclusion of the half-orc and their origins.

      But we don't really get to consider orcs as faceless id expressions anymore if we're classifying them as a race—especially one we advocate playing. So what's to be done?

      This has been a challenge when the hard statistics of the game define orcs as a brutish race with an intelligence score significantly lower than a mimic (a monster that poses as a treasure chest all day long). Something you mentioned earlier rings in this:

      "Your response about detailed individual orcs Pathfinder Campaign Setting does not change the fact that real world racism is irreducibly essential to the way the race orcs are presented in fantasy, and that includes Pathfinder Core material. Escaping this reality/fantasy may not be easy (I certainly don't have an easy answer), but this fact still remains."

      But when the physics by which your world is run defines a group as being less than another group, what do you do? Or are statistics for sentient beings in and of themselves racist?

      It's a challenging question for designers who have to balance creating a fair rules system with crafting stories. That's part of the reason that for us so far, the focus has been largely with the half-orc—a playable race with more variability than the denizens of bestiaries—and creating identifiable heroes with orc blood. It’s been a hunt to find the exceptional characters, the Drizzts Do'Urdens who so vividly highlight the other side of the coin.

      But even with that there are uncomfortable parallels—the implication that this race can't elevate itself unless humans sweep in and breed some sense into them.

      I think the answers lie in exceptions and exceptional orc characters. The half-orcs exist as that to a degree, but I think there’s probably iroom for the enlightened orc. The rebel who eschews the depravities of her implied culture and becomes something else. I think there are portions of the audience that would eagerly accept a new view on orcs, especially an instance of an exceptional one, but I also suspect there are those who would want the majority to remain monsters—to continue to be born evil.

      That seems to be a big part of this. Can a race in a fantasy world be fundamentally evil in ways we don't face in the real world? Or would much of this concern be mitigated by simply adding room for more exceptions, taking the sentence "orcs are evil" to "most orcs are evil" or "some orcs are evil."

      And if only some orcs are evil, can an orc still guard a treasure chest in a 10-by-10-foot room?

      It's a fascinating history with some very interesting ramifications and I'm eager to hear what folks think. We'll continue to try and make half-orcs a race that feels like it has a fully fleshed out place in our games and stories, but this is a discussion with significant grist for the world-making mill to grind on. I'm eager to hear what folks think.

      Phew! Again, sorry for the wordy response! I got back to this after hours so I promise less topic drift! :)

    10. "Sorry to baffle folks, looking back, a morning full of being interrupted while writing this definitely got me hung up on the gender violence angle as it pertains to the Pathfinder orc."

      No problem. That section of the article was kinda my main conclusion, and I do imagine that some of the content was novel to people. The underlying theoretical perspective I am applying is intersectionality, and there is a lot of work that has to be done to explain it.

      I also agree that the base design for roleplaying games like D&D, Warhammer, and Pathfinder don't lend itself easily to narrative structure. At the moment, the two parts (rules and narrative) are joined together almost arbitrarily. This is something I would like to investigate further, but was not something done very much in this article.

      "But when the physics by which your world is run defines a group as being less than another group, what do you do? Or are statistics for sentient beings in and of themselves racist?"

      To put it plainly, I do think the racial stats are themselves an expression of racism. I don't know if that makes them "bad" per se, but from my perspective racial statistics are articulated through the very same kinds of justifications we see in everyday racist discourse. This may sound harsh, but I think that this is true.

      I don't have a solution to the problem, and despite it I continue to use racial stats in my games because it plays an important role. I don't have an easy solution for this, and admittedly that might dissatisfy some people.

      Like I said, I do agree that half-orcs make a really interesting subject, and they're something I plan on writing about very soon. These issues are sometimes overwhelming and confusing, so thank you for your time and thought.

    11. "To put it plainly, I do think the racial stats are themselves an expression of racism. I don't know if that makes them "bad" per se, but from my perspective racial statistics are articulated through the very same kinds of justifications we see in everyday racist discourse. This may sound harsh, but I think that this is true."

      I'm glad you touched on this, because I almost mentioned this initially. It does seem like any time you have to apply a concrete statistic to a creature type you're making a racist judgment, you're saying this species is good at this, is bad at this, is better than them in this way, is worse then them in this way. Statistics like that are typically meant to be baselines with the potential for deviations, but still allow for some pretty obvious hierarchies.

      But I'm starting to wonder if there is a language issue here. Especially in the United States, racism is pretty much a four letter word, and one with some pretty damning implications. It's likely because the concept is so readily conflated with bigotry. But it seems like it would be difficult for most of us to look at a bestiary full of creature statistics and consider it bigoted. I know it took me a moment to shift my thinking to "we we're talking 'racism' with a lower case 'r' here, not about actually oppressing real people." (I'm still not sure that 100% scans--that's going to take some mulling over, but I'm putting it out there.)

      But does the word racism still really get to apply when we're talking about differences between different species? We use the word race in gaming, but it's something of a misnomer. Most of the definitions of the word "race" use the term to classify humans--setting the baseline as human, with generally shared and equal potential. But, to venture into the world of semantics for a moment, aren't we talking speciesism? That seems apt from a literalist's perspective, but it still doesn't seem quite right...

      To take this from the human-orc scenario for a moment, lets say our alien overlords swing by tomorrow. They're 10 feet tall, 300 pounds, telepathic, telekinetic, and share an ancient and benevolent super consciousness. This is a race born (hatched, created) with abilities and potential beyond the human baseline. Are they "better" than us? Well, in a few obvious ways, yeah, but I'm not sure our language currently has the words to effectively address abject disparities between sentient peoples.

      It's really kind of cool, as I don't feel like we run into instances of "I need a better word for this" often. ;)

      "I don't have an easy solution for this, and admittedly that might dissatisfy some people."

      Not at all, this is a really fascinating topic!

      I wonder if the ways we have this sort of conversation are going to change as our technology advances. If we're approaching a world where humans can be engineered to have greater potential than the natural baseline, if technological enhancements create a division between those with and those without, what sorts of new words will facilitate discussions about what race even means. In the future it seems like there's much more potential for major and obvious disparities that go beyond terms of race. With issues like that at the forefront of writers' minds, I can't imagine it not influencing the stories we tell and the ways we talk about fundamentally different sentient creatures.

  3. "(Yeah, I don't really understand the comment implementation of Blogger. I'm thinking someday I'll migrate to a better platform).

    "I guess I'm not sure whether you're responding to myself, because this seems mostly addressing Hauptsatz comment."

    Again! Sorry, it's been a day full of interruptions as I've been trying to respond to this! The whole time I was writing my second tirade I was thinking "crap, crap, crap, no one post" because that first response is SO secondary to the one I just FRICKIN' FINALLY got out! :P

    Hopefully the above clarifies some of my initial intentions and reasonings for the split focus on the problems with the orc and the orc-related race even more central to many RPG gamers' experiences.

    I personally think there's a lot of work to be done with both of these races in not just our presentation of the races, but in how that presentation affects our readership. I could see some very valid reasons for many readers to look at some of these presentations and be rightfully pissed, especially when it comes to matters of gender and cultures of violence. That's something I've been involved in some serious conversations about and something we're devoted to being more alert regarding. We've had a number of fantastic dialogues about how our readership wants to see genders, sexualities, and races portrayed in their RPG, and I wanted to highlight our willingness to have exactly that sort of discussion on this topic.

    Sorry the hecticness of my day garbled the points and order of the earlier posts. I promise to only post from my home office for the rest of the conversation. :D

  4. Rakshasas are another example, making Hinduism, Indian culture, and the caste system features of an always-evil race while not making them available for campaign settings or player characters.

    1. I'm having a hard time thinking of a fantasy caste system portrayed in a positive light at all. Rakshasas are often presented as having a caste system, a few bug-people cultures do from a certain perspective (arguable), and then what... the hierarchies of certain outsiders, angels included. With the latter there's often the sense of some sort of merit-based potential, but it's pretty vague.

      Any examples of others? And what would folks want to see in a positive portrayal of a caste system?

    2. Yeah, I do think their caught up into racialist discourse. A significant part of how the ideas about Raksasas and other orient specific images (castes, harems, etc). They do play into othering the near and far east.

      Actually, it was this essay "I Didn’t Dream of Dragons" which really made me think hard about how we communicate dominant ideas about our culture vs. the other's culture. In part, this essay (and future ones) are written because my own reflections on how I've "talked about the other" makes me want to investigate how we talk about the other. There is a lot of racialization that is caught up in modern notions of the other, and I think that it certainly goes beyond just orcs.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for writing it!

    "No matter our cause, our own effect on our allies can’t be understated—especially on those who have only limited experiencing with prejudice of any sort. Education, patience, and discussion—at least in my experience—win more and stronger allies than outrage and damnation. There will always be places for that, but rarely between friends. That is absolutely not a suggestion to quell criticisms, but rather to consider the intention behind acts and my personal constant avocation of counseling over condemnation."

    I know I'm a bit late to this, but I want to comment on it. There's a false dichotomy here that needs to be pointed out that continues to cause problems in my opinion.

    Not engaging in respectability politics is not the same as outrage and damnation. Saying, "no that is sexist/racist/etc", is not the same as condemning. It makes conversations really difficult when someone who claims to be an ally comes in and starts to say those things. Intent at that point is meaningless in my opinion, the person is then directly undercutting person bringing up the issue and making it possible for the majority group to continue their oppression. And I think this is something that can and should be pointed out to friends.

    1. If I could "up vote" this, I would. Sarah Darkmagic, I think you and Hauptsatz both addressed really important aspects of respectability politics, and I am really thankful for that.

      Honestly, when I was reflecting over this article and the criticisms I had enlisted around my tone and critique, it struck me as odd. Odd because my biggest criticism of this article is that I didn't argue very strongly for the severity of the "real world" issues analogized in roleplay media. This in part was a consequence of the fact that I meant this article to introduce the idea that there is correspondence between "real world" racist discourse and roleplay conceptualizations about race.

      I took a very "soft" touch (at least I think so), and as a consequence I felt a bit on the verge of playing respectability politics. And there is some very serious problems with respectability politics, as both yourself and Hauptsatz pointed out. I felt weird arguing against the prescription of respectability because I couldn't quite understand the rationale behind the "effect" my article was having on "allies" (despite the wealth of averse responses I've received about this article).

      But thank you for articulating the problems with respectability politics. It does make conversations really hard to have and works to sustain majority group's ability to oppress.

    2. "Intent at that point is meaningless in my opinion, the person is then directly undercutting person bringing up the issue and making it possible for the majority group to continue their oppression. And I think this is something that can and should be pointed out to friends."

      That's a perspective that's going to take some real mulling over, as I can certainly see how one could read that. For my part, any additional advocacy for suggestions of what could change, what could creators do, what would people like to see certainly wasn't meant as a criticism, especially as I think Delphiphile did a fantastic job with the article's conclusion leaving things off with a call for continued discussion and encouraging readers to think on how the evolution of the orc might continue in a more positive direction. Many open online conversations do have something of a reputation for turning purely caustic, though, which would be unfortunate for a discussion that I know has been at the forefront of many authors and game makers minds. But clearly I jumped the gun in my advocacy.

      I also want to throw my full support behind the technology that allows us to contextualize our online dialogues with physical expressions like nods, open-hands, or self-effacing bows. :)

  6. I'd like to ask, how are the orcs of the Warcraft universe?

    At first (in the first two rts games iirc), they were pretty much the stereotype (ugly, green, big and mean, wanting to conquer the world...), but since Warcraft 3, there have been some changes (introduction of Thrall as a somewhat pacifistic leader (at least in comparison to other orcs), orc culture was retconned to be actually shamanistic (focused on the elements, keeping them in balance, not hellbent on world domination) in the first place, but they got corrupted/enslaved by space demons, their original skin colour was actually brown, which changed to green through aforementioned corruption by space demons).

    1. But I didn't quite touch on the entirety of your comment, and it looks like I went on an undead tangent!

      There are some dynamics present in Warcrafts evolution of orcs through the game series. The Orcs originally had some racism problems. And I think the retcon was fairly imaginative and helped dissociate the Orcs from ideas of innate evil or depravity.

      There are still some arguable racialist things that Blizzard uses to make their horde races correspond with "real world" concepts of race. For example, trolls speach is suppose to elicit ideas about central American races, and their religious/spiritual practices are literally called Voodoo. Taurens and Orcs (after the retcon) were clearly being depicted as the "noble savage," written to elicit romantic notions of native life.

      I think they've progressed, and that they've made a lot of effort creating their particular vision of orcs. But they still depend on some correspondence to racialist discourse present in the "real world."

    2. I do think that folks like Blizzard have arguably produced much more rounded presentations of orcs (or at least from my experiences with their online game and Warcraft III). I do like how Warcraft III (and apparently a point-and-click adventure game that was never completed) started developing the Orcs as a people, rather than mooks (though the format of RTS games makes everyone a mook).

      And in my experience with Warcraft III, Frozen Throne, and WoW, there were some interesting things that they did with the traditionally "evil" races. Orcs were given a kinda cool story path, where they escaped the eastern continent, and worked to settle Kalimdor.

      In WoW, I thought the undead "race" was really the best faction. The Forsaken had this cool effect of messing with the idea of territorial rights. The humans were battling with the undead to take back Lordaeron for the human race. While the Forsaken were occupying Lordaeron because arguably they were the descendants of the pre-Scourge old kingdom.

      I always got the impression (whether intentionally written this way or not) that the human incursion on the Forsaken lands was/is unjust. There seemed to be this deep prejudice that the Alliance had against the undead, and therefor they couldn't bring themselves to end their war (also, it would ruin the PVP, lol).

      Though Warcraft series and WoW aren't really roleplay games in the traditional sense, I do think they're a significant change in how orcs are presented. I tend to like their approach.

  7. Great article! I've always been bothered by the sweeping racial generalizations made for our goblinoid friends (from kobolds to bugbears), and there is definitely a racist (and more than likely, unconscious) overtone behind the whole trope.
    But there is one aspect you didn't mention that is one of the primary cause of the All Orcs Are Evil cliché. It's simply lazy writing. It's so much easier to use the shorthand of "orc" to create immediate connotations. Why go through the hard work of describing HOW a person is evil when you all you gotta do is say "orc", and voila! Instant villain. I suspect a lot of this orcish literature simply comes from writers (and that means you, roleplaying manual writers) who can't be bothered with the nuances of personality differences between humanoids that are, ostensibly, of human intelligence.
    I would like to draw your attention to a roleplaying manual that managed to get the "orc" right. I'm surprised you didn't mention the Orks of Earthdawn. You can play an Ork as a Character, and as a result, the descriptions of Ork culture are refreshingly (some would find shockingly) balanced and neutral. They also tackled that other maligned race, the ogres, in the same fashion.
    So when I see a fantasy or roleplaying writer whip out old tried and true savage orc, I don't immediately think "racist!" My first thought is "lazy, lazy, lazy."

    1. Sorry for the late reply—graduate school applications forced me to take a blogging hiatus. Thank you for your comment!

      I certainly agree that the "Orcs are Evil" cliche is a significant source of racism in fantasy. I do see the lazy writing, as you mention, and it's that laziness which manifests the rampant connection between writing about orcs through a correspondence to real world racism.

      In fact, I do think the wholesale 'copy-paste-edit' of 3.5 fluff into Pathfinder is just the example of lazy writing that reproduces racism we're talking about. Wes mentions above that the orcs they write are part of a "trajectory" that can't be adapted to remove racism without it being a "jarring deviation." My concern is shared with you: we need to reinvent these things and stop being lazy, it's bad art and it's racist.

  8. And I am filing this article away for future reference. I'm surprised I didn't run into this when I was gathering sources for a paper on a similar topic re: race and racism in RPGS.

  9. Thank you for writing this article. As a longtime roleplaying enthusiast, I have felt this thorn in my side for years but could not put my finger on it. Perhaps it is partially due to the fact that it is very difficult to question things that are so deeply entrenched. At a certain point, though, one must either make the decision to abandon something or work to change it.

    I referenced your article in two online campaigns that I am participating, one is an Eberron D&D campaign that I am a player in. The other is a Forgotten Realms campaign that I am running with the Pathfinder mechanics.

    In the first, I am playing a goblin spellcaster from the goblin nation of Darguun. Here is the comment I posted on the OoC thread:

    "The racism and Euro-Americocentrism inherent in D&D and the fantasy genre is a point of contention that has almost led me to abandon both altogether. The message that is sent to people is subtle and generally goes unquestioned (or is rationalized). Nonetheless, it has an effect on our attitudes about race and many other things.

    Maybe we should question some very basic premises and use this understanding to re-frame how we set up campaigns and settings? This is pretty much what I have been trying to do with my character and his story.

    Darguun, for example, is portrayed in the rulebooks as a savage, violent country that threatenes Khorvaire and is a haven for criminals because of its goblin population. It's people squabble, live in caves or occupy existing infrastructure like squatters, and are only held together by the use of force or dreams of conquest. Darguun's 'redeeming' qualities are found in the civilizing influence of the Sovereign Host and in how much the goblins are able to conform to the norms of their 'human' neighbors. And I find the parallel between Malleon's Gate and black inner-city ghettos to be particularly offensive (they probably all listen to that awful rap music too). A similar theme exists with Droaam (and even Valenar, whose people are curiously reminiscent of the Saracens and Mongols).

    With my character's story, I aim to reveal this as the perception of a culture from the outside and the effect of what happens when a dominant civilization conquers and degrades a group of people.

    This idea could also apply to Daask, Khyber, The Dark Six and any other group or cultural symbol that is associated with 'the other'. Even the demons of the abyss (those wicked Hindu Rhakashas!), the Dreaming Dark (Riedra = evils of socialism) and the daelkyr reflect a sense of religious and ideological bigotry (yes, the Silver Flame is a bit zealous and intolerant, but at heart it is good rather than just a force of nature; oh, and the Blood of Vol...sure, it has some positive aspects, but that whole undeath thing - something that can greatly extend a lifespan - is downright corrupting). Don't you know? Vampires have to feed off the 'living' and suffer from an insatiable hunger. Just like any other organism. Unnatural! Well, its only unnatural if it takes us down a notch on the food chain...

    This problem is extremely entrenched in the fantasy genre and likely has its roots in the concept of good and evil. Good and evil is really just a tool that serves to dehumanize those who are in the way or can be used. History is riddled with examples of the 'good vs. evil' device used to legitimize mass robbery, displacement, murder, exploitation, etc.

    I really don't see why we should allow our favorite hobby to act as a vessel that pollutes our subconscious with these ideas."

  10. ...and some excerpts from play:

    "A sharp rapping on the door pulled Dzumr from his studies. Why must I always be disturbed seconds before I arrive at a profound revelation? He sighed and marked his place in the tome. 'Frostfell to Mror: A Primer of Dwarven History,' was the reference that Dzumr continually returned to in his research of the dwarves' legacy. Various books and scrolls about the same topic were scattered along the large table that dominated the center of Professor ir'Alorian's private library.

    The door creaked open and Taelius, as the goblin had come to know the professor, made his way into the room.

    'Ahh,' the ancient elf mused. 'the Great Clans. How goes your study, Dzumr?'

    'They are not so different from my people,' the young goblin began. 'Here,' he picked up the tome and flipped to a section describing the early days of dwarven settlement on Khorvaire. 'Take Clan Bloodhammer.'

    'The King of Tears,' nodded the professor.

    'Yes, well, his people, not content with their own wealth and obsessed with the notion of ancestral destiny, slaughtered every neighboring clan down to the last man, woman and child.' The goblin looked il'Alorian hard in the eye. 'And yet they have their own Dragonmarked House, are regarded as a civilized people, and enjoy the respect of the Five Nations.'

    The professor made his way over to the table and pulled up a chair next to Dzumr, preparing himself for another late night. He would once again have to play the Devil's advocate and temper this youngster's perspective, lest he fall prey to the same biased extremism that had plagued so many other would be intellectuals.

    'Indeed. You bring up an interesting point, Dzumr, regarding the Houses...'

    Hours passed. Countless cups of tea later and the sun's first rays penetrated the library window, startling the goblin. He had fallen asleep with his face firmly planted in the book he was reading. His head jolted upright and he began to recall the debate from the night before. Voices were raised, as usual and wild gestures were frequently made to the amusement of the composed professor. But in the end they both laughed and had deepened their friendship. Ir'Alorian had bid Dzumr farewell and had reminded him to put the books in their proper order on the shelves and lock the doors to his office before leaving.

    That was when the goblin panicked. The professor, who was never late, would be arriving in 15 minutes to prepare for his morning lectures. Dzumr exploded into motion and scrambled, cursing himself all the while..."

  11. "The basement door slowly opened to reveal a dusty room illuminated by an everburning lantern. A voice that resembled a cross between a pig's squealing and a duck's quacking twaddled on like usual.

    '...and the look on her face was priceless! I tell ya, once she found out who my friends are that skirt practically came up by itself!' Shaggle Bighorn was at it again. His sidekick stupidly nodded, hanging on every word.

    The blowhard took a break from his tall tale to condescendingly watch Dzumr enter the room and head toward the supply closet.

    'Hey slinky,' the ugly halfling announced. 'Boss wants ta see ya. Pronto.'

    'Whatever,' veteran of the Last War and descendant of the Kech Sharaat, Dzumr did not even bother to respond. He even felt sorry for Shaggle's miserable hide on some level. Now that ir'Alorian was no longer around to protect the goblin's job, it was obvious what the boss was going to tell him. But Dzumr was not about to let some swine of a gnome interfere with his plans. He hurriedly picked up his set of cleaning gear and headed out of the basement chamber.

    'Pfft. Filthy greenskin thinks he's better tha-,' the door slammed behind Dzumr.

    Outside the Professor's office in Breland Tower he fiddled with his set of keys and eventually unlocked the double doors. He played the part of a lowly cleaner well. Servile and apparently dim, he made his way into the room and scanned it. Upon realizing that nobody was in Taelius's office he straightened up and set his gear down. The professor kept most of his current, relevant work on and within a large oak desk. Dzumr ruffled open a large trash sack made of featherthread, a cheap fiber invented by House Cannith artificers, and walked over to the study area.

    With a single motion of his arm he swept the material atop the desk into the bag. He then proceeded to remove the drawers and empty their contents into the trash receptacle. Almost satisfied, he inspected the desk for secret compartments and took what the may be holding too. Finished, he put the desk back together and made a final survey of the room.

    'Farewell Taelius. You will be missed.'

    Fifteen minutes later he emerged, whistling, from the first floor lavatory in plain clothes with the sack hoisted over his shoulder. His next destination was the Downstairs district. Hidden in the privacy of his tiny apartment, Dzumr would sort out the Professor's notes and immediate possessions in the hopes of finding a clue.

    Back in the latrine, a pile of janitorial equipment mixed with an unwashed uniform sat on the floor. Atop the heap was a note. The words were large, legible and boldly written:


  12. "Tonight was...festive. Packs of drunken students stumbled through the streets, yelling and yammering in slurred voices. Male-female courtship habits played themselves out and the occasional verbal conflict erupted. By Dzumr's standards the district was tame.

    He went unnoticed along the winding streets leading to his home. Upon arriving he entered Little Droaam's back door to avoid the patronage and the foolish owner who never failed to bombard him with silly questions and curious looks. The goblin was in no mood for idiocy tonight.

    'Greetings little one!' the beanpole tavern cook's dour face brightened every time he saw Dzumr. This was always a mystery to the goblin, as the extent of their conversations never went beyond 'hello' and 'goodbye'.

    'And to you, tower man,' was the usual response. The cook threw his head back in laughter, still amused by the played out jest after all these months. Dzumr passed through the kitchen, climbed the stairs and scurried to his humble abode. His sense of time was acute, an internal clock of some kind that had developed over years living in the tunnels beneath the Seawall Mountains. He estimated about 45 minutes until the warforged was to arrive. That was if the buffoon did not get lost along the way. He chuckled at the thought, the first time he had smiled in a long while.

    But his rough demeanor and his jokes melted away when the door to his apartment closed behind him. The sack with the professor's belongings fell to his side and he slumped to the ground. Head hung low, he fell in on himself, lost in a mess of past trauma, grief and complete helplessness.

    It seemed like mere seconds had passed when a knock on the thin door beckoned him from whatever other world his mind had retreated to.

    'Hey buddy,' Rilian, the tavern's owner, had a wavering voice that betrayed a shy and insecure personality. 'Uhh. You got some friends here.'

    'Friends?' Dzumr cynnicaly mused. 'What are those?'

    'You there?' Another knock at the door.

    'Ara cho!' Dzumr's protective ego emerged once again.

    'Okay, okay,' Rilian tried to calm the goblin's rising anger. 'I'll tell them you are coming.'

    Dzumr collected himself for a few moments, threw open the door and tromped down the stairs to the rowdy main room.

    He reached the bottom of the staircase and slowed his pace, not eager to see the public. An applause sounded and then things quieted down on the other side of the door. The minstrel show was over.

    'Good,' he thought bitterly.

    Little Droaam was a themed after the rogue nation to the west. Recently, it had grown into a circus act that played upon the stereotypes surrounding Khorvaire's native people - the 'monstrous' races."

  13. "The establishment's owner, Rilian the 'Great', was a nincompoop with the unrealistic dream of becoming a playwright. He had inherited an ordinary tavern from his family and had turned it into its present incarnation. Though he was genuinely interested in the old races of Khorvaire, he was an idiot. A kind idiot. Too kind.

    The unfortunate fact of the world was that people like Rilian were taken advantage of sooner or later by the unscrupulous. And so it was when Sorik was hired to replace the old bartender, an elderly drunkard, who was found by the Sharn Watch dead in an alley one night. Dzumr instantly despised the new employee.

    Darguul goblins had an expression for people like Sorik. 'Taat'muut'dur,' translated to 'person of little honor.' This was the type of individual who would smile in your face and feign friendship before stabbing you in the back at the first opportunity for personal gain. In Darguun people like this usually died a premature violent death. In the human nations they thrived. Sorik was gradually taking over Little Droaam and was turning it into his own business. Rilian and his employees (save the head cook) failed to see through his charms and thought him to be a godsend.

    The bartender's most recent suggestion to Rilian was to put on minstrel shows. During these acts the crowd would be entertained by a third rate bard with a talent for crude humor who would dress up in a foolish costume of a goblin, orc, gnoll, orc, ogre, minotaur or any other monster race. The performer, or performers, would portray various insulting cliches that were attributed to these races, complete with ethnic slurs and all.

    The idea had tripled business and had even earned a rave blurb in the Sharn Inquisitive's entertainment section. Everyone was happy. Well, almost everyone.

    'Lhag'dur,' Dzumr spat as he shook his head. He placed his hand on the door and pushed. Somehow this was more difficult than making contact with the enemy in battle.

    ...and he recoiled before opening the door, like a newborn reluctant to leave the womb. He was about to go back up to his room and forget about the whole thing but his mind began to play things out.

    Saxsor wanted him to see the larger world and obtain a broader education before returning to Darguun. Powerful magic had been employed in contacting ir'Alorian and in transporting the young goblin to Sharn. Now, with the professor dead, he was stranded in this cesspool of a city. He almost laughed out loud at the thought of Morgrave University allowing him to use their scrying devices and teleportation circle.

    Overland travel through Breland and Zilargo was out of the question. Not even the toughest lone goblin would survive such hostile territory.

    He was fired from his a job barely a day after the professor's murder. His living situation was becoming more and more uncertain with each passing day and each move that snake of a bartender advanced toward usurping Rilian's business. Dzumr could see the writing on the wall.

    He looked down at the sack gripped in his left hand. He looked at the door ahead of him. The contents of the bag and the naive warforged in the next room were his only shot at avoiding a miserable life in Malleon's Gate.

    He clenched his jaw and bit the bullet. His fist, calloused as it was already, did not even feel the impact as it punched open the door. In the same movement he stormed into the common room."

  14. The patrons went silent in response to his sudden entry. In his anger Dzumr had inadvertently punctuated the performance that preceded his entry - and the timing couldn't have been worse. Sensing that he was now the center of attention, the goblin made his best effort to appear nonchalant and unconcerned. It was no use. Before he even had a chance to survey the room the taunts began.

    'Is that?' A snobbish woman quizzically began. 'Is that a real?'

    'Hey! Its an encore!' Came the cocksure voice of a young male student.

    'I wonder what's in its bag o' tricks!' Continued another man.

    'Do a dance for us, little booger!' The entire tavern broke out in laughter at an impaired drunkard's remark.

    Dzumr was brave among the flood of malicious revelry directed at him. He turned to Rilian, standing at the side of the bar with a stupid grin on his face. Immediately upon making eye contact with the goblin, the tavern owner's smile evaporated and his suddenly ashamed expression turned towards the floor. Sorik watched the entire scene like a bird of prey as he wiped the bar with a wet rag, his thin mouth turned up in a crooked smirk.

    After a brief scan of the room the warforged the goblin spotted his warforged contact at a corner table. Sorik followed Dzumr with his cold eyes as the goblin stoically made his way over to the table and did his best to keep his head forward and shoulders squared."

  15. And my favorite, and article that my character wrote to the Sharn Inquisitive:

    The following un-addressed letter was received by the Sharn Inquisitive on 6 Olarune, YK 998. A sophisticated use of common indicates the work of an idle student at Morgrave University rather than a goblinoid (whose literacy skills, if present at all, would be far inferior to what is shown here).

    After careful consideration the Inquisitive decided not to run the piece.

    Dear Inquisitive Souls,

    May I suggest an bit of historical and social context to supplement the welcome pamphlet that your friends at the Tourist Bureau regularly publish? I have contacted them directly on numerous occasions to no avail. Apparently they are too preoccupied with important business matters to notice the concerns of their own citizens - especially the smaller ones.

    On behalf of the 'beasts' who live in Lower Dura, I would like to point out the need for a deeper understanding of these 'violent' places that are infested with 'criminals'. If Sharn is to truly represent the kind of progressive and multicultural enlightenment that it claims, it would behoove its citizens to develop a perspective that may one day address the issue of selective racial privilege.

    You see, long before your kind arrived and enslaved the descendants of the Great Empire, we toiled and innovated on a scale beyond your comprehension and carved out the foundation of your great city. We even tapped into the fire of Khyber that powers your conveniences to this day. And if this were not enough, the ancestors of Lower Dura's people paid the price in blood to stave of an extra-plannar invasion.

    But do not mistake our indignation with entitlement.

    There is no need for you, who labor tirelessly in your bureaucratic offices, to bother with the effort of thanking us. Your beloved first ruler, the Big Braggard, already extended that courtesy by trading our tangible shackles for metaphorical ones. Gratitude does not go unnoticed by your loyal beasts of burden.

    So consider this a letter of appreciation from those who really ought to know better than resorting to 'criminal' activities in our selfish dreams to improve our standard of living. When will we realize that we have plenty of opportunities on the level, prejudice free, playing field that Breland and the whole of the human race has provided?

    Perhaps one day we will evolve into full fledged people and learn the value of counting our blessings.

    Sincerely and in your debt,

    The Friendly Neighborhood Greenskin Midden-Heap Shoveler

  16. The moral of the story here is that this genre can be redeemed. All it requires is raising awareness. And being willing to challenge that which we take for granted.

    Here was my final suggestion on the OoC thread:

    'Human' becomes a term to describe all tool and magic weilding beings of Eberron. The former race known as 'humans' becomes 'magnons' or some other term that no longer implicates them at the center of the arrangement (of course, whatever dominant culture exists at any given time and place will naturally call itself 'human', but for, say, the people of Valenar to refer to the people of the Five Nations as 'human' is inconsistent with this). Demihumans...humanoids...sigh...

  17. I can certainly see your point here, especially in earlier editions, but in most modern settings they don't seem to really have much of a connection at all with non-european peoples.

    Many settings have Orcs as savage invaders from the North who come to pillage, destroy, rape and kill civilized peoples and nations. It's extremely easy to see who Really inspired their creation.

    They are already portrayed as tall, musclebound monsters wielding massive axes and swords and wearing makeshift armor of animal hide and rarely mail armor. Now imagine them with fair skin, blue eyes and sandy hair.
    In short, Orcs are simply green-skinned versions of White Viking Barbarians come to destroy and steal from civilized Roman-esque human kingdoms.

    And indeed, looking back across the editions, Orcs have always resembled Invading Vikings more than African Tribals from a cultural standpoint.
    Orcs as Vikings also makes more sense historically, as the medieval European era that DnD is inspired from was Not menaced by African tribes.

    I won't deny though that the skin color they gave them was possibly colored by racist attitudes of the time period, giving them dark skin as the predominantly white player base wouldn't like the reminder that their ancestors could be cruel and savage bastards.

    Though it does go back muuuch farther than that, considering that while their 'culture' is mostly drawn from Viking Invader stereotypes, their Appearance and other aspects are drawn from Norse mythology, in particular the Svartalfar, the misshapen, swarthy, ugly brethren of the elves.

    Svartalfar: "The black elves of Norse mythology who grew from the maggots of Ymir's flesh. They live in the earth and in stones. Although they have the shape of men, they are often misshapen. Their home is Svartalfheim, which lies under the earth, and here they stay during daylight on pain of being turned to stone."
    Sounds like an orc nearly word for word.

    1. I guess I don't know quite what you mean that "most modern settings they don't seem to really have much of a connection at all with non-european peoples." I did look at a very limited selection of roleplaying games, all of which articulate fantasy race through real world ideas of race.

      It might be interesting to look at how ostensible "white" peoples are made into races, or how the uncivilized savagery of Vikingesque barbarians illegitimates their status as "civilized white" folk.

      Thanks for the comment.

    2. Part of the problem is that regardless of what evidence you have to support your claim that orcs have their roots in a fear of northern (white) barbarians invading is that the only pop culture link between nordic peoples and orcs is the shared association with axes. Not only is this love of axes also shared with dwarves, a race commonly portrayed as white despite out soot covered or swarthy they are also depicted, but other pop culture associations with nordic people are also associated with dwarves, horned helmets, large beards, magical hammers, and a similar decorative aesthetic. Dwarves are in many ways an amalgamation of two white cultures, the Scots and the Norse, where as orcs only tenuously have a connection with a white culture, especially in modern day pop culture. And this also ignores the connection between the Svartalfar and Dwarves, which is how in many cases it has been translated as.

    3. I wasn't making the argument that orcs have their roots in fear of viking barbarians, you were. If the connection is so tenuous, then I don't know why you're putting it forward.

    4. Just to clarify, my post was addressing Garzhad and their original argument that orcs are stand-ins for northern barbarian hordes, not your (Delphiphile) exploration of that idea of barbarism vs whiteness. I apologize that I was not clear to whom I was addressing my criticism.

  18. You all have entirely to much time on your hands. It's a game. Play it or don't, and stop trying to instill your own issues with the world in to it. I play these games with people of every race, color, creed, orientation, and sexual preference.the only racism inherent in these games is that which is introduced I as a story element (ie, orks and dwarves, dwarves and elves, orks and elves), and that which people like you seem to be capable of finding in the most ludicrous of places. With even a cursory glance of the paizo artwork you can see that they have tried as hard as they could to include people of all varieties to make their world that much more realistic and enjoyable to play in. The cleric appears Arabic, the paladin is African, the gnome is green with tattoos every where and google eyes. There are elements of every race in our world in their world so that it creates a BELIEVABLE ROLE PLAYING environment. Tell me, are the gnomes and dwarves examples of how we dislike "little people", so we banish their races under ground? Are elves representations of homosexuals and leftist thinkers so we banish them to the woods? No. These ideas are preposterous and ludicrous and have no basis in anything other then in the fevered minds of people who can't believe that they are not being some how discriminated against. Get over your selves.

    1. I researched and wrote this article as part of a larger project I proposed in "Using Roleplay to Critique and Subvert." A number of people have expressed interest and provided alternative and supplementary perspectives on this issue. I don't have a lot of free time (as evinced by how long it's been since I last posted on this subject).

      I agree it's a game, but it's also a form of literature, and is a participatory experience. I do play role play games, and discussions like these have enriched the experience. I also think that talking about these issues can have a big impact on both how roleplay games are formulated, and how we think about these issues when we step away from the table.

      I recognize that to a lot of gamers, what Paizo has done with their Iconics looks really progressive. And to a certain extent, that's exactly their purpose: to create the image of a progressive, independent company that is inclusive of consumers of as many races, creeds, orientations, etc as they can identify.

      Thank you for your comment. Though, please watch your tone in the future.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly with Robert Clutter.

      People look way too deep into this kind of stuff. Yes we take inspiration from the real world, to weave a more real feeling world of fantasy that is easier to connect too.

      My recent character was a Half-Orc Ninja working to protect a cloister of Elven and Dwarven clerics as they communed to help form a peace treaty, despite both Races hating her Mixed Breed ways. She did it out of a sense of duty and fairness, not letting their spiteful ways lessen her resolve to carry out her word of Honor...
      I could spend all day finding connections, like Black Doctors treating racist white patients, or Racist Americans fighting beside Black Americans in Vietnam, but that was not what inspired such a story.
      What inspired such a story was the classic stories of one's own Alliances being tested. A Paladin meant to uphold love meets a Demoness and man bound by marriage, he must uphold their sacred bond of innocence, but he must also slay the demon, no matter what he does, he betrays his god.

      Sure Orcs are modeled after Vikings, because vikings were a huge threat to everyone in their times (Note I said Vikings, not Norse, White, Caucasian, etc). Finding a group of cult leaders seeking to bring hell to the Material Planes to conquer all involves no race, but I could easily name cults off the top of my head that believe in such ideals.

      We as humans take inspiration from everything, and even if the inspiration source is wicked in origin, we do not care for its whole, only the compelling elements that aid in weaving a provocative and compelling narrative.

      In my original example, note the Half Orc is a Ninja and Female (Typically Asian stereotyped class for men or dainty women) and the ones she defends is two CULTURES who constantly feud. What you need to realize is DnD style races DO NOT EXIST IN REAL LIFE. In REAL LIFE we are all just a subspecies of Homosapiens (Human), Blacks and Whites are as different of Race as Gold Labs and German Shepards. In DnD, the difference between a Human and a Dwarf, is the difference between a dog and a cat. And while some Lore tells of long Ancestral bonds between Orc and Elf, it is still the equivalent comparative of Monkey and Human (Two species who share an ancestral branch, but do not share anything beyond that)...

      In conclusion, yes we muse from real life, just as all creations do, but just as Writing a Villain doesn't further crime, writing Race based feuds in Fantasy doesn't further Racism, infact, if anything, it is the opposite. Know why Drow are no longer just evil NPCs? Players grew interested in them, and questioned the idea of them only being evil, expanded upon their society and culture, and wrote stories branching them from such villainous pasts.

      You see Drow and Orcs as only evil, while smart and/or creative players see opportunity for Drama as someone whose society binds itself in tradition breaks those bonds, and seeks to be an individual, and to become hers or his own person.

    3. I guess my concern has been that if we take from the real world, "to weave a more real feeling world of fantasy," then the obvious question is what mechanism are we using to import these "more real feeling[s]."

      As I've tried to lay out in my article (despite protests of "look[ing] way too deep into this kind of stuff"), is that "real world" race and racism plays a very integral role in creating difference and meaning in fantasy races. It is certainly good that some players have improvised and revised their conceptions of orcs in light of there historical portrayal. But, as presented here, the ways in which orcs haven't changed from Tolkien to Paizo indicated a fundamental connection between orc imagery and "real world" racism. In fact, I think the invent of the "doubly abject" orc woman represents how this dependence on racialist language has morphed to fit the prevailing racism of the time.

      I am not so confident of your analogy that "Blacks and Whites are as different of Race as Gold Labs and German Shepards." There are some serious problems with it. And the certainty that DnD races are not remotely like "real world" races seems merely insisted on your part. I mean, the fact that orcs, elves, and humans are capable of reproducing together undermines the distinction you're trying to make between fantasy races and "real world" races. In what sense are elves, orcs and humans different "fantasy species" if, under the typical rubric for "real world" species, they would be all classified as one?

      I don't see Drow and Orcs as "only evil." But what I do see is a pervasive blindness in the "unpopular" gaming culture of reproducing troubling narratives. I see typical Orc and Drow imagery as both a site for transformation and an opportunity to introduce role players to feminist, critical race, (and potentially queer) literature and thinkers.

  19. I think you might need to take a step back and see the "race" of orcs as a "species" instead. When understood as a different species, it can better be understood why the traits of orcs are always the same and their behavior does not suffer well diversity of worldview.

    1. From a purely technical perspective, orcs and humans don't make up distinct species: they are not reproductively isolated.

      But this idea of using the language of "species" to desalinate difference between human(oid)s is actually something with a rich history in the "real world." From the 19th century onward, whole fields of science and study have risen (and occasionally fallen) while working to establish biological ontology of racial categories. From anthropology to psychology, to genetics and molecular biology, the human sciences have endeavored (with various degrees of success) to trace racial inequality back to biological differences.

      The notion of the races being species or "subspecies" has a rich scientific history. For example, the scientific project of determining how many chromosomes humans have was, in part, concerned with chromosomal differences between the races. For many scientists investigating this, the process of counting chromosomes had a racial element: the number of chromosomes that white people have vs. people of color was believed to have significant explanatory power.

      So this idea isn't so new, it also has correspondence to "real world" ideas about race and racism.

  20. I see now. They mst have completed the "Orc Genome Project." Are you seriously defending your ideas by speaking about the genetics of fantasy species?? This is absurd. It's fantasy and all you have to go on is what the late author said about them. You cannot revise the written works of other authors' fantasy worlds to suit your obvious agenda. I do not disagree that there are stereotypes, but you have chosen the wrong path to substantiate your opinions. Why not write your own fantasy genre with kinder, gentler orcs? At least then you could be contributing something.
    Yours, et cetera, et cetera, sincerely, and so forth,
    Professor Ozzymandeus

    1. "Are you seriously defending your ideas by speaking about the genetics of fantasy species??"

      You were the one who supposed some sort of "biological" essence that defined/created the differences between "orcs" and "humans" as species. I was just point out that this conceptualization of difference is both unsound (under the typical definitions we use for "species") and resonates with the history of scientific racism.

      "I do not disagree that there are stereotypes, but you have chosen the wrong path to substantiate your opinions. Why not write your own fantasy genre with kinder, gentler orcs? At least then you could be contributing something."

      Can't I do both? ;)

    2. You could try, but then, I fear, you would be failing in two areas. The difference between my reasoning and yours is that my information is from the source which was read with no preconceived ideas and yours is either from a third party wiki or a movie loosely based on a small part of the source material which conveniently fitted into an opinion you already held. I now know why you chose a subject from fantasy. It is because everyone will know how wrong you are if you used a real-world example for your argument. Do yourself a big favor and leave the orc discussions to those who know the source matter best.

      Regardless of which wiki you use instead of reading Tolkien, there not several breeds of orc. Hobbits are the only ones who call them "goblins" and "hobgoblins". Uruk-hai were bred by crossing orcs and humans. They are also a dead end species with no females. The Uruk-Hai were bred so as to be able to fight and travel in the daylight.
      The way Tolkien describes Melkor's treatment of the captured elves reveals that they are an altogether different species. Melkor, from the beginning of the creation of Arda, had always sought to bring chaos into order and cacophony into the melody of Eru's creation. This perversion of the "First Children of Illuvatar" was intended to wound Eru since the elves held a special place in creation. The orcs(who were once elves) now beget orcs and it is a distinctly different race with it's own peculiarities, not the least of which is a marred appearance compared to the elves.
      Also of note: there are no orcish Miss Middle-Earth winners which is clear evidence of racism by the elves. One would think, by reading your article that orcs are the only "bad guys", but please, let's don't forget the balrogs, wargs, trolls, pirates and of course the Dunlendings a.k.a. "wild men" (all of whom were poor, ignorant and European-looking in the movies), but that is a discussion for another day.

    3. "You could try [provide an analysis of racism in fantasy and also write your own fantasy material], but then, I fear, you would be failing in two areas...."

      While I have worked on fantasy material for roleplay purposes, there is an obvious problem with simply producing material for the sake of avoiding common racist tropes: it leaves you with very little creative material to start with. A good fantasy world/story is not built on a lack of problematic elements. Rather, in my personal work, it has to be done alongside creative and thoughtful worldbuilding and narratives. If one were to judge my own work on fiction by it's avoidance of racist tropes, then (ideally) all there would be to say is "there's no racism here."

      In fact, this is the very reason why I think that the racism has stuck around in these images. Though it has been rearticulated and reformed to fit the changes in racist thought, racist thought and imagery provides an deep well of shared culture. An example of this can be seen in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: inbreeding and cannibalism are used to articulate the depravity and evil of Black Orcs. It's not only that these dark skinned "beasts" are violent and cruel, but that these traits can be traced back to activities that are both taboo in western culture and attributed to "other cultures." Roland Barthes provided similar criticism of this kind of imagery in his short essay "Bichon Among the Blacks" (Mythologies; 1957, 2012; translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers). In these instances, race becomes a powerful place to articulate moral and aesthetic values, and serves to propel the narratives of dominance (i.e. it's now permissible, if not obligatory, to kill or enslave the dark skinned others).

      "I now know why you chose a subject from fantasy. It is because everyone will know how wrong you are if you used a real-world example for your argument."

      I choose fantasy as my subject for a whole number of reasons. If you read both this article and the my introductory article, you'd have a better grasp of my motivations.

      And in what sense do you mean "everyone will know how wrong" I am if I used "real-world" examples? Is the claim here that the "real-world" contains no racism? If this is what you believe, then I now have a better grasp of the gulf of difference in our understandings on this topic.

      You have spent the rest of this comment dwelling on the my apparently inaccurate identification that there were "a variety of orc breeds." Okay, so I guess goblins and hobgoblins are just other terms (slurs?) for orcs. I guess when I read The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring in high school, I didn't pick up that Tolkien was trying to be clever in this case of seemingly inconsistent language. But it does seem that I was at least technically correct: the Uruk-hai differed from the "common" orc, and thus shows that there were different kinds of orcs.

    4. [Continuing from previous comment]

      But as for the rest of you exposition, I am not sure where you're going with it. I admitted in my article I am not a fan(boy) of Tolkien. I have only read The Hobbit, The Fellowship, and The Two Towers. When I finished The Two Towers, I put it down and thought "gawd, I can't read anymore of this dense colorless prose." No surprise, I picked up The Wheel of Time shortly afterward, and never returned to Tolkien. Not to detour from the main topic too much, but I would like to comment on one of the reasons I found Tolkien so boring: his cast of characters just didn't seem interesting. All men, all heterosexual (presumably), and the only races were the (white) ones he invented. For all that Robert Jordan could have done better, at least gave readers more than a handful of women, and a fair cut of the narrative focus on/from them.

      So, if your primary concern is over my treatment of Tolkien, well good news! The vast majority of my article focuses on Orcs as they are presented within fantasy roleplay material. The Tolkien prelude was to prime the reader with the very basic of what people tend to think when it comes to orcs. But obviously there is much more cultural content to orcs today then there was when Tolkien penned his first Hobbit chapter. That was the topic of this article: the broad roleplay literature that includes orcs. Tolkien plays only a small, though perhaps keystone, role in the diverse array of orcish images we have on contemporary media.

  21. I thought you'd like this blog since it's about stuff similar to the issues you raise here. It's focus is mostly on the depiction of women in art for fantasy roleplaying games, but it also talks a fair amount about race as well.
    A post on race and racism: