Saturday, June 27, 2020

Orcs Really Are People, Too, Now

America is having a moment.  We're emerging from weeks of protests in the streets regarding matters of race and equality after the public murder of George Floyd.  Many corporations are taking a stance on how their products or services will change to reflect new attitudes.  Brands are dropping outdated imagery, making donations in show of support, or publicly affirming their positions on diversity and inclusion.  The NFL made a statement recognizing they need to support their black players.  Even the publisher of D&D came out with their own statement on diversity in Dungeons & Dragons, as the shifts happening in the larger culture will be reflected in the game, too.

No limits: Elf dentists, Orc wizards.
The Wizards of the Coast press release recognizes the world has changed in the near 50 years since the game was first created.  It lays out actions they're going to take with future publications - changing the depictions of humanoids, updating problematic depictions in 5E era books as they get reprinted, and offering more options for character customization in upcoming works.  In follow up discussions on social media and at their recent live event, more details emerged.  Going forward, anything designated "humanoid" will now be depicted as having "any alignment" rather than being shoehorned categorically into evil; ability score adjustments will no longer include penalties to intelligence for non-human races; players will have more flexibility in choosing cultural backgrounds.  (Your elf will no longer be typecast as a forest-loving archer, you'll be free to optimize that elvish dentist you always wanted.  Your formerly 'monstrous' humanoids will be free to choose new destinies as well).

Historically, the game has had a strange relationship with the concept of race.  In the versions I learned in the 1980's, elves and dwarves and halflings were "demi-humans", and all the "monster" races were humanoids.  It was implied humanoids were "born bad" and had fixed alignments in their monster stat blocks.  After 40+ years of gaming, player preferences have shifted away from the underlying source literatures.  There are game worlds where the halflings have been re-imagined as horrible little cannibals, and others where goblins are a mischievous player character race.  Orcs are popular in video games and also as a playable race in some D&D game worlds.  With the new Wizards of the Coast position, all character race options are now defined as "humanoids"; they can be any alignment, and players will have some flexibility on ability score increases and cultural backgrounds.  Time for an orc wizard?  These changes seem fairly benign, but there are interesting implications for world building.

Here's a thought experiment - consider a human-centric game setting, something like Game of Thrones, with your faux Viking culture (Ironborn) and your faux Mongols (Doth Raki) and your horrible western knights.  There was no dearth of conflict, drama, bloodshed, or violence, to support a rich fantasy campaign world in GRR's setting.  You can create interesting villainous cultures and also have sympathetic characters and engaging stories involving members of those cultures*.  Where there is irrational antipathy and prejudice - for instance, the way the Westerosi and Night's Watch view the Wildlings from beyond the wall - we (the readers and viewers) are given a broader view and see the Wildlings as a multi-dimensional and admirable group of people.  (I'd be on Team Tormund Giantsbane, that guy is legendary.)

To the extent future game worlds will begin to put the various humanoids on the same footing as humanity, I can see myself drawing on sources like Westeros for inspiration on both presenting adversarial cultures, yet having sympathetic members of those cultures.  I like making elves into the awful ones in my games, they're ripe to be cast as haughty villains, and let the player characters be the exception if they pick an elf.  I'm looking forward to developing an orc culture on one of the continents and casting their values in orcish terms - they embrace pragmatism and common sense - a smart orc looks after themself!  If a player wants to be an emigrant from one of the humanoid cultures in the broader world, it'll be great fun.  Games are more interesting when there are grey areas around allegiances and alliances, and the players need to make choices about parleying with opponents instead of attacking everything on sight.  Dust off those reaction rolls and morale checks for a change (or add useful ones to your 5E game... they're a bit lackluster in the 5th).  For humanoid-style monsters that you want to keep as "kill on sight" I'd suggest changing their designation from humanoid to something more alien or monstrous.  Gnolls, for instance, are supposedly descended from hyenas who ate demon-tainted corpses and mutated into bi-pedal ravagers; since they're practically demon spawn already, let's just tag them as "fiends".  I think one of the designers already mentioned this might be in the offing.  In one of my settings, goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears will be recast as evil fey, servants of the Winter Court, who sneak into the world to cause mischief, collecting infants for David Bowie.

I didn't see much commentary on the blogs about the WOTC announcement or its implications.  The again, I don't know many 5E blogs, and there's not much reason for OSR gamers to pay attention to the mothership.  For me. there are some intensely personal reasons to be sensitive to race depictions in game worlds.  My youngest son is adopted, a proud African American 13 year old kiddo, and it's been a journey to learn to see the world through his eyes.  (I'm certainly not there yet).  He relates to Black Panther, Nick Fury, Luke Cage, and the Falcon a whole lot more than Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, or anyone else from Tolkien's bunch.  Part of our "Living Covida Loca" has been family movie nights where we've watched Lord of the Rings, all the Marvel Universe movies, and now working our way through Star Wars saga, so we've talked about which characters he likes quite a bit.  The phrase I've heard online is "representation matters" - people want to be able to see themselves in their entertainment media.  That could mean human characters that look like them, or humanoids that are more relatable than bleached European elves.  I support this new approach by Wizards of the Coast, and plan to work these ideas into upcoming settings.

*I'm aware Westeros is not entirely without problematic depictions, particularly where the Mother of Dragons is concerned.


  1. This, unsurprisingly, has been on my mind too. I run a vanilla setting and tend towards the golden era of the game (mid 70's to early 80's). I've had LBGTG and BIPAC players at my table, long encouraging them to define their race/culture/orientation as they wish. PC's always hail from another place.

    I'd always assumed that by hewing to the source literature of dwarves, elves, orcs, etc. that I'd be at least insulated from some of this but I'm not sure now. I kind of don't know where to go from here.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      I'm not sure what's wrong with me.

    3. Humanoids are tricky. Early D&D, particularly things like the 1E Monster Manual, used a type of "Gygaxian Naturalism" to present most humanoids as tribe dwellers, complete with spouses, kids, and animal followers. Personally, that quickly gets into territory I don't want to game out at the table. For as long as I've been an adult gamer I've come up with alternatives - the orcs are brainwashed villagers transformed by the sorceress, goblins are grown in a pumpkin patch, ogres are created when desperate people delve into cannibalism, that kind of stuff. Something that makes them monstrous and not humans in masks. With this new WOTC stance, I can see myself elevating at least one of the humanoid groups into a full culture (most likely orcs), and 'monstrifying' the others so there's no confusion.

  2. It's notable how often people have houseruled away restrictive alignment rules, class prohibitions, and the playability of monsters. This is an area where folks have noticed that the official rules were not as interesting as the stories people wanted to tell.

  3. Good stuff, John.

    As a white person who discovered RPGs as a teenager, I have (for as long as I can remember) considered as problematic the depiction of Dark Elves in D&D as dark-skinned and evil. There is no reason that the name has to refer to their skin-tone. I believe the original source mythology implied that they lived underground, and this could be the reason for that label. Dark Elves might just as easily be pasty-white creatures if they never see the sun!

  4. If monsters are "people" and not simply vile servants of evil, then "lawful" adventurers are murderers who break into people's homes, kill them, and steal their stuff. This ideology turns adventuring into psychopathic behavior. That's just sick and not a game I can play.

    1. You are right; that is absolutely problematic. However in most fantasy RPGs that is exactly how the adventurers behave, in practice. We often don't actually see the "monsters" doing anything other than defending their homes.

      Part of this stems from the D&D reward mechanisms that reinforce this play. Traditionally the XP is not earned for being "heroic" but primarily by stealing (early D&D) or killing (later D&D). That fundamentally motivates those very same psychopathic behaviours in the players' choices.

      I don't say I have an answer. However I do think that dressing it up as "we can justify killing them solely because they aren't people" is in essence its own problem.

    2. Perhaps the solution is to have no humanoids ever be the enemy, only monstrous beasts. At least, never as a whole race of humanoid "monsters". That would still allow for humanoids (of whatever stripe) choosing to be evil through their own free-will, and thereby justifying their comeuppance.

      I still think it's problematic, but this is perhaps an improvement.

    3. As someone that's been playing Eberron for a long time it's really easy to switch from racial factions to ideological/national/commercial factions.

      Plus removing the whole "evil babies" thing is GREAT. Nobody likes trying to decide whether to burn the goblin village to the ground. Now you can show mercy to noncombatants! Much more heroic

    4. I've been meaning to take a good look at Eberron because of its treatment of religions, sounds like there are good ideas with its use of factions, too.

    5. I run a murder-happy campaign, but I still stick by this quote, which seems on-topic for this comment thread:

      Fafhrd retorted, a little hotly, "Killing in a fight isn't murder."
      Again the Mouser shrugged. "Killing is murder, no matter what nice names you give."
      - Fritz Leiber, Ill Met in Lankhmar

      Fuller quote Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser on Murder.

  5. Vanilla 5E and its published settings are already so modernist -- indistinguishable from a 2019 Renaissance Fair in Seattle -- that this hardly represents any significant change at all. Games that are closer to history and mythology -- where monsters are symbolic of things like sin and barbarism -- are indeed mostly run in the OSR which, as you note, couldn't care less about WotC.

    If you do run 5E -- which I do from time to time since it's easy to find players -- the easiest way to pull your game back from a World of Warcraft vibe is to simply limit PCs to playing humans. That places the entire design space of "monsters" back into the DMs hands where they can be tailored to his specific setting.

  6. Personally, It seems like a meaningless gesture. Most tables never portray orcs as Always Chaotic Evil anyway. Personally, I don't even use orcs (they are very tacky). WOTC could've very easily quietly changed it, and no one would raise an eyebrow. If they are making a big statement about it, it's really only for publicity.
    As well, with regards orcs in general, Tolkien never meant orcs to be black people. If anything, he meant them to be dogmatic nationalists like the Nazis. It was the works derived from Tolkien who made orcs into a race allegory, and then liberal authors tried to use orcs to make a counterpoint allegory about how racism is bad. But as we all know, race allegories generally suck because there (normally) actually *is* something different between orcs and humans, where there is really no difference between one human and another. It's the "Detroit: Become Human" problem, or more accurately the "Bright" problem.

    1. I don't know. That seems overly simplistic. I loved the heck out LotR growing up, but Tolkien's depictions are problematic by today's standards. We should not ignore that some fascist groups have apparently embraced LotR for the wrong reasons.

      To give Tolkien the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was not intending to be racist... I think that means accepting that were Tolkien alive and writing the books today, then he should choose to write them differently.

    2. Even Tolkien regretted how he wrote Orcs in his later life. The guy was very much writing from a strongly Catholic perspective and he disliked that he had cast a people as being fully evil from birth, after all such a concept is inimitable to the concept of salvation.

      You can kind of see how inherently evil orcs sort of wormed its way into his mythos. Most of the servants of evil fall to it from their failings. Morgoth and Sauron may be corrupting influences, but ultimately they prey on the weaknesses already in their victims. But Orcs are more or less an evolution of the Goblins that Tolkien wrote for the Hobbit, a story that was ultimately supposed to be a relatively straightforward story for his children. One would imagine if Tolkien had not started with Goblins as an assumed part of the mythos he might have stuck with his enemies being more consistently fallen to their own failings. (Such as the Nazghul)

  7. "horrible western knights"

    Misspelled "honorable" there

    "My youngest son is adopted, a proud African American 13 year old kiddo"


    1. No I'm pretty sure GoT's knights were horrible.

  8. "Game of Thrones"

    Well there's your problem.

  9. Well put, John. I've never been in love with strict alignments for monsters.

  10. Ever since I first encountered D&D I did not get along with alignments. I think that was part of my attraction to games like Runequest, where most creatures could be PCs and few were described as unrelentingly 'evil'... except for the broo...
    Same with Traveller. If scifi doesn't need alignment why does fantasy?
    If anything, WOTC's move seems to be behind the curve of how people have been actually playing. The only real pushback I've seen from it is coming from RPGPundit's crowd... and if it bothers them it must be on the right track.

  11. Knobgobbler, I think you're right this is a case of the publisher catching up with how a lot of people were already using humanoids in their games. Video games have influenced player preferences more than anything. For instance, although it's been a few years since I played Skyrim, orcs were common characters and NPCs in that game. If they showed up as opponents, it was because of a "career choice" and not biology (ie, orcs that became cultists or bandits). My wife's favorite character was her orc warrior, Dagmar. 1970's gamers discovered orcs through the lens of Tolkien and early D&D; newer gamers have come to D&D with expectations set by a couple decades of immersive video games and orcs as player characters.

  12. This reminds me. I'm sure that I read somewhere that in Gary Gygax's home game one of the PCs acquired an orc hench-person. Which suggests even in the very early days, there was acceptance that orcs might be individuals with free will who weren't uniformly Evil. At least at Gygax's table, if not in the actual rules. That said, I do not recall the source of that recollection, so it might be unsubstantiated.

    1. Good memory - it was Lord Robilar with his henchman Quij, an orc. (Though I do think Robilar was an evil PC, so who knows about Quij).

  13. People are really polarized about this. I got told I should go a KKK rally because I suggested that "orc rights" was an odd hill to die on, compared to all the real life injustice currently pervading our society.

    I actually prefer orcs to be monstrous because I don't like the "moral dilemma" of the whole Gygaxian "women and children orcs" thing. I don't like the undertones of "green-skinned savages" that have actual society and families. I don't think it adds anything to the game. But now it seems to be viewed by some as racist or problematic to have any sentient creature described as inherently monstrous.

    Maybe the solution is to make certain creatures (like gnolls?) fiends instead of humanoids. But is that enough? Where does it end? Is it still problematic to portray mind flayers and vampires as irredeemably evil?

    I am in 100% favor of the changes being made to the depiction of the Vistani, because they are transparently based on a real world human culture and the depiction has in the past leaned on real world negative stereotypes. But orcs and drow? I just feel that the real world has enough problems with systemic racism that need to be addressed before we worry about the feelings of fictional species.

    Maybe this is an age thing. I'm really not that into the whole "monster party" that seems to be somewhat common in modern D&D. This feels to an extent like an effect of that trend, and explains why I see a lot of older players (who tend to play traditional D&D human and demihuman races) don't quite understand what the issue is here.

    1. The easiest solution, and the one I'm aligning behind, is to treat the humanoid cultures like villanous human cultures. Becoming bandits, cultists, or rampaging marauders of Gruumsh is a "career choice" like becoming a viking. The other approach, like you said, is "monstrify" them further and try and take them out of that humanoid monster type - that's a harder road to pave.

      The timing of Wizards' announcement is related to corporations updating their public positions on matters of race, but the impetus is player preferences have changed and this happens to be a fortuitous time to make a broad announcement. It's crappy that people want to make this about left vs right politics and not recognize the demographics and preferences of players are the thing that changed. (I blame video games, damn kids and their video games. It's always video game's fault).

      The Drow are interesting - I never looked at them in racial terms until that cringe-worthy Queen of the Demonweb Pits compilation made them look like black people in skimpy outfits. I like the modern approach of depicting Drow as pale or purple hued villains and let's get back to gaming.

  14. I assure you my imaginary orcs aren't people. When I want games that involve people treating other people poorly I've got no problem having the imaginary people being people.

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