This was a recent hot take on the interwebs, and I love the low hanging fruit so…
I actually have a little expertise in this (as much as one can about a swords & sorcery race that doesn’t exist). I have read the D&D Player’s Guide & Dungeon Master’s Guide cover-to-cover, and written a novella about orcs. So I’ve done my research. I mean, I’m not savvy on the history of orcs in fiction, but I’ve got some stakes as a fiction writer.
So the big debate is whether orcs are a stand-in for Black people, either in the tribal African “Shaka Zulu” sense or the “genetic predisposition” sense.
There has never been scientific evidence that Black people intrinsically violent or unintelligent. Could you see Idris Elba or Dulé Hill as an orc?
This is all conjecture. It’s circular reasoning — you’re starting with the conclusion and then cherry-picking the evidence that supports it. You have to assume the premises are true to accept that the conclusion is true. I know this is true because what if I said “Hey, I think orcs were based on cowboys. They’re both violent, unintelligent, and uncivilized. How do we know Tolkien didn’t have vicious American cowboys in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings?” I could do the same thing with Romans, Mongolians, or frontiersmen like Davey Crockett and Jeremiah Johnson.
I’m not gonna rehash the history of orcs. That’s what the Wikipedia page is for, so check that if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the word “African” or “Black” (in the context of race) does not appear in the page. Point one.
Second, orcs were brought into modern usage by J.R.R. Tolkien, an author from a land where they don’t have systemic racism. There weren’t Black slaves in England. There weren’t phrenologists and quacks trying to prove Africans as inferior so they could justify slavery. That was America. Meaning they weren’t conceived as a mock for Darkest Africa.
However, fantasy writers have a history of making their races as caricatures of existing cultures. Dwarves have been stereotyped in lots of places as being Jewish (obsession with gold, semitic-sounding language) and/or Scottish (since most Fantasy is vaguely British-based, dwarves resemble Celts best in terms of behavior, history, and relationship). So the idea is not without merit. But like Belle and Stockholm Syndrome, even if the circumstances are ripe for it, there is no evidence associating the culture of orcs to African-Americans.
The original argument was presented in the context of Dungeons & Dragons, a modern day game that is ever-changing. Let’s talk about orcs in that context.
Someone noted that if you play as an orc, no matter the class, you take a -1 penalty to your intelligence score. That means the smartest orc can never be smarter than the smartest human. (The reverse is not true, since stats can’t go below zero – the dumbest human is as dumb as the dumbest orc). Extrapolate that out and that means the average orc is dumber than the average human.
But is this legitimate? You’re trying to apply biological, psychological, and sociological traits with game statistics. A person’s logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, reasoning, creativity, problem-solving, etc. cannot be reduced to a simple number.
D&D is a game. You need balance in a game. Like in any Madden NFL game, a character might be a 99 for catching in real life, but has to be reduced to 90 or else one team is going to dominate or exploit a mechanic or something.
In most RPG games, there is some kind of “brute” playable character–something with high strength and low intelligence. Something that’s strong when it comes to melee or physical attacks and weak to magical attacks. The INT penalty is a game mechanic.
And keep in mind this is the same game where being “evil” is a naturally occuring trait. (Which goes into a whole big about the nature of evil and nature vs. nurture and condensing motivations to a 3×3 grid and do you kill the orc babies and so on). This wasn’t meant to be a universe, it was meant to help with role-playing. All monsters have some innate descriptors — mermaids, nagas, ettins. Some have characteristics they share with existing cultures. Some do not.
Death of the Author – Yes
In the excerpt, it says “an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.” Fine, but is the author is assuming that said orc was raised among other orcs and will have culture shock? Or is the author saying orcs are born “uncivilized” like primates?
Orcs started in D&D as monsters. They were enemies to fight that you didn’t have to worry about the moral implications of killing. Something more challenging than animal-like monsters. That’s how Tolkien envisioned them too. Orcs live for battle. They want to prove their strength.
Then D&D got popular and expanded. Then orcs became a race that people wanted to play, to add flavor to the game. The game designers obliged, but they had to keep the orc as an orc, otherwise it wouldnt be an orc. That meant integrating a fighty-shouty monster into a world where the apex citizens had civilization and culture and highly advanced problem-solving skills.
That meant you had a monster that had to live among human kind. Kind of like the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They had the same stats as a monster, but were living among humans (and dwarves and elves). They’re not human, but apparently they can breed with humans, because there are half-orcs. And that gets into all kinds of issues I don’t have the wherewithal to comprehend.
That’s the thing–in D&D, anything goes. This is not a set world. Not a set culture. There’s no such thing as canon. All Wizards of the Coast provides is world-building. The characters and stories and situations within are created by the millions of game players worldwide. That means an orc could be a savage race in one game session and a tribe of noble warriors in another. Or a race of bunny-farmers in another.
My question is–where is the Black person in all this? When do they show up? Cause I haven’t seen it. What makes you think when we talk about orcs, we’re really talking about Black people?
It’s all BS and pot-stirring. D&D is meant to be played how you want. Anything in the book is a suggestion. A helpful guideline. An approach to impersonation. Play the orc how you want. Maybe he’s a sophisticated guy with a monocle who sits in an upholstered chair smoking a pipe. As long as the orc has a reason for getting to that station in life, it’s fine.
An orc is an orc is an orc. If you see something else, that’s your own Rorschach test.